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Archive for the ‘Financial Services and Banking Litigation’ Category

Protecting Seniors From Investment Exploitation – One Year Later

Posted on: June 3rd, 2019

By: Ryan Baggs

One year after the passage of the Senior Safe Act (the “Act”) the SEC, FINRA, and NASAA continue to emphasize the importance of “covered financial institutions” (“CFIs” or “CFI”) providing adequate training to all relevant employees for the protection of investors over the age of 65. If an employee undergoes proper training and reports a violation of the act in “good faith” and “with reasonable care” she/he will be immune from suit or issues related to the reporting. What’s even more of an incentive to CFIs, such as a large broker-dealer, is that if the broker-dealer properly trains and educates all of its representatives and a representative later reports a violation of the Act, the broker-dealer itself, not just the representative, will be immune from that suit. Each organization involved, as can be seen by the numerous articles and reminders regarding the Act’s one year anniversary, is eagerly dedicated to encouraging training and education related to the immunity benefits behind the Act.  As noted by FINRA President and CEO Robert Cook: “The Senior Safe Act seeks to empower financial professionals to detect and report cases of suspected abuse of senior investors and we believe it is important to broaden awareness and understanding of the Act throughout the securities industry.” (finra.org May 23, 2019 news release).

The goals of the SEC, FINRA, and NASAA are extremely important and beneficial to the industry in general; however, with all well-meaning intentions, there always exists the possibility of abuse. What is uncertain because of the brief history of the Act is exactly what “good faith” and “with reasonable care” mean or will mean in the future. Are there ways a CFI or representative will be able to manipulate the Act to avoid liability or litigation? Almost undoubtedly, but how is remained to be seen. But overall, despite the possibility of some abuse at some point, the purpose of the Act and dedication to protecting seniors from investment and elder abuse is an admirable step in the industry.

For more information, please contact Ryan Baggs at [email protected].

ERISA Plaintiffs Continue Their Assault on Major Universities, but Every ERISA Fiduciary is Vulnerable

Posted on: May 15th, 2019

By: John H. Goselin II

Beginning in August 2016, the ERISA Plaintiffs’ Bar launched a concerted attack on more than 20 major universities across the country filing class action lawsuits for alleged violations of ERISA fiduciary duties under ERISA Section 404 and alleged participation in ERISA prohibited transactions under Section 406.

Each side has won significant victories. Duke University, the University of Chicago and Vanderbilt University have capitulated and are paying six and seven-figure class action settlements. The University of Rochester and Long Island University fought until the plaintiffs simply walked away earlier this year. Northwestern University, New York University, Washington University and the University of Pennsylvania won impressive victories at the motion to dismiss stage.

But the battle is never over at the district court level. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has provided new life to the plaintiffs bringing suit against the University of Pennsylvania, albeit only for 2 of the 7 counts that were originally alleged. Sweda v University of Pennsylvania, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 13284 (No. 17-3244, May 2, 2019). Not only does this reversal present new risks for the University of Pennsylvania, but it may put a damper on lower courts willing to dismiss these class action lawsuits.

The Third Circuit rejected a per se rule that would protect plan fiduciaries who provide a “mix and range of investment options” to plan participants. Instead, the Third Circuit held that Plaintiff Sweda had plausibly alleged that the defendants had “failed to conform to the high standard required of plan fiduciaries [under ERISA Section 404(a)(1)]” by alleging that (i) the recordkeeping fees were 6-7 times greater than the fees paid by similar plans, (ii) defendants failed to solicit competitive bids for recordkeeping and other plan services or (iii) defendants failed to hire an independent consultant to assess the plan’s administrative costs. Furthermore, the University of Pennsylvania Plan maintained high-cost investment options with historically poor performance compared to available alternatives, particularly the ongoing use of retail mutual fund shares when lower-cost institutional shares were available, but never adopted by the plan.

It is important to note that the claims being asserted against the universities apply to every business that maintains a 401(k) plan, or other ERISA investment plan, for their employees. The employer as a plan sponsor and the named and functional fiduciaries administering the plan will be held to the “prudent man” standard of care which requires all plan fiduciaries to exercise “the skill, care, prudence, and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing that a prudent man acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matters would use in the conduct of an enterprise of a like character and with like aims.”

In short, the structure and administration of an ERISA plan must be continually reviewed, evaluated and modified to reflect the prevailing better/best practices. Plan sponsors and individual fiduciaries should develop a process of continuing and ongoing education regarding (i) what is expected of ERISA fiduciaries and (ii) the available options in the market place. Furthermore, plan fiduciaries must have a documented process pursuant to which they periodically evaluate the ERISA plan(s) for which they are responsible and make changes when necessary and appropriate.

Once the ERISA Plaintiffs’ Bar is done with the universities, they will be looking for their next targets.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact John Goselin at [email protected].

SEC Issues Risk Alert Regarding Broker-Dealers and Investment Advisers’ Privacy Practices and Compliance with Regulation S-P

Posted on: April 22nd, 2019

By: Jennifer Lee

On April 16, 2019, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) issued a Risk Alert summarizing the findings from the examinations of broker-dealers and investment advisers’ privacy practices and compliance with Regulation S-P.

Regulation S-P, 17 C.F.R. § 248.30, was enacted to protect the privacy of customers and their information. It has three major components:

  1. Firms are required to provide their customers with a copy of their privacy policies and procedures at the initial outset of the relationship and also on an annual basis.
  2. Firms are prohibited from sharing customers’ nonpublic information with unaffiliated third parties unless the customer is given prior notice regarding such practices.
  3. Firms must inform customers that they have a right to opt-out of the firm’s data sharing practices with unaffiliated third-parties and provide a method in which customers can opt-out.

During the examinations, which spanned over the course of the past two years, the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) found common deficiencies in firms’ compliance with Regulation S-P. The OCIE found that some firms did not provide customers with the initial and/or annual privacy policies and procedures. In other instances, the privacy policies and procedures were inadequate to satisfy the requirements under Regulation S-P. For example, the policies and procedures failed to identify the precautions taken to ensure the integrity of customers’ information.

Even when firms gave the required notices and had satisfactory written policies and procedures on the books, the OCIE often found that such policies and procedures were not actually being implemented and firms’ practices diverged from the written policies and procedures. Customers’ personally identifiable information (“PII”) were sent via unencrypted emails and left in unsecured physical locations, firm employees had customer information on unsecured personal devices, and outside vendors were not vetted on their cybersecurity and privacy practices.

These findings are unsurprising because often when a new set of privacy or cybersecurity regulations is introduced, companies will invest an incredible amount of time and resources to develop policies and procedures that comply with the new requirements. Usually, most of this work is done by the COO or Chief Information Security Officer (“CISO”). However, it does not and cannot stop there as most enforcement actions and customer actions are brought based on the firm’s failure to implement its policies and procedures.

To reduce the risk of enforcement and customer actions, firms must ensure that the policies and procedures in its books are put into practice. This requires buy-in from everyone at the executive level—from the CEO to the CMO—and cooperation from multiple departments in the firm that may not necessarily work closely with each other on a regular basis. In addition, firms should shift their perspective on compliance with Regulation S-P and other privacy or cybersecurity regulation. It is not a one-off event. Instead, it should be seen as an active and on-going process that requires constant training and monitoring.

If you have any questions regarding your firm’s compliance with Regulation S-P or other privacy and cybersecurity regulations, please contact Jennifer Lee at [email protected].

Plaintiffs’ Burden to Establish Punitive Damages: Farmers & Merchants Trust Co. v. Vanetik

Posted on: April 18th, 2019

By: Jennifer Weatherup

A recent decision from the California Court of Appeal has outlined the requirements for establishing a defendant’s financial condition as a prerequisite to an award of punitive damages, and has further emphasized that it is the plaintiff’s burden to provide a comprehensive picture of the defendant’s financial condition in support of a punitive damages award.

In Farmers & Merchants Trust Co. v. Vanetik, Plaintiff F&M Trust, who was the trustee and administrator of a pension plan, sued Defendants Yuri and Tony Vanetik[1] for breach of contract and fraud. F&M Trust claimed that the Vanetiks made several false statements and representations, which induced it to acquire stock in their company. At trial, the jury found the Vanetiks’ liable, and F&M Trust was awarded over $3 million dollars in punitive damages from the Vanetiks.

The Court of Appeal struck down this award because F&M Trust failed to present sufficient evidence of the Vanetiks’ financial condition. Because punitive damages are intended to punish wrongdoing and deter future misconduct, juries must consider three elements when determining an appropriate punitive damages award: (1) the wrongfulness of a defendant’s conduct, (2) the amount of compensatory damages, and (3) the defendant’s wealth. Wealth must be considered in order to determine whether a particular award is significant enough to punish that particular defendant.

As the Vanetik Court observed, a plaintiff wishing to impose punitive damages on a defendant must present evidence that provides a “balanced overview” of their financial condition. Thus, a plaintiff cannot cherry pick details relating to a defendant’s assets while failing to present evidence of liabilities or encumbrances on their property. Because F&M Trust only presented circumstantial evidence of the Vanetiks’ income, failed to determine whether Tony Vanetik’s home was subject to a lien or even owned by Tony, and failed to consider the Vanetiks’ liabilities, the Court found that there was insufficient admissible evidence to support a punitive damages award.

The Court further rejected F&M Trust’s claim that they should be excused from their failure to present evidence of the Vanetiks’ financial conditions because Defendants did not produce that evidence. Prior caselaw does provide that punitive damages may be awarded without evidence of a financial condition if a plaintiff’s failure to produce evidence is the result of the defendant’s failure to comply with discovery obligations. However, the plaintiff bears the burden of showing that the lack of evidence was the defendant’s fault, and F&M Trust failed to satisfy this burden.

As the Court noted, F&M Trust never filed a motion for pretrial discovery into the Vanetiks’ financial condition, even though a plaintiff must obtain a court order before conducting discovery into a defendant’s financial condition. Similarly, the trial court did not order the Vanetiks’ financial condition before the punitive damages portion of the trial. Thus F&M Trust’s failure to produce sufficient evidence of the Vanetiks’ financial condition is not excused, and the punitive damages award must be stricken.

The Vanetik case provides useful authority for professionals and other defendants who are facing a substantial punitive damages award, as it demonstrates the extent to which plaintiffs bear the burden of establishing defendants’ financial condition, and emphasizes the need for plaintiffs to present a complete picture of defendants’ finances, rather than relying on selective, incomplete, or circumstantial evidence.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Jennifer Weatherup at [email protected].

[1] Plaintiff also sued the Vanetiks’ attorney. The Court separately found that the attorney could not be found liable for conspiracy.

FINRA Seeks To Simplify Non-Party Discovery

Posted on: April 9th, 2019

By: Greg Fayard

In January 2019, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) proposed changes to its rules to give non-parties more time to respond to discovery requests and witness orders from arbitration panels. Currently, non-parties only have 10 calendar days from service by U.S. mail to respond or object to document subpoenas or witness/document production orders. Often times, the person responsible for responding to the non-party subpoena or arbitration order receives the subpoena or order after the 10 days have elapsed. When that happens, the non-party has waived its opportunity to object to the subpoena or order, subjecting it to potential sanctions or disciplinary action. To avoid such prejudice to non-parties, FINRA is recommending changes to its rules to give non-parties 15 calendar days (instead of 10) upon receipt (not service) of the order or subpoena. Receipt will include overnight mail, overnight delivery service like FedEx, hand delivery, e-mail or facsimiled documents. Importantly, under the proposed rule changes, service of discovery requests on non-parties by U.S. mail would be excluded. Lastly, FINRA seeks to codify rule changes to reflect how it currently processes and informs arbitration panels regarding non-party objections to subpoenas and orders.

The purpose of FINRA’s proposed rule changes is to provide better due process to non-parties, eliminate the problem of delays with U.S. mail, and to codify FINRA’s current protocols for non-party discovery.

The FINRA rules impacted by the proposed changes are 12512, 12513, 13512 and 13513. The new rules have to be approved by the Securities and Exchange Commission. If approved, FINRA will announce an effective date of the rule changes in a future regulatory notice.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Greg Fayard at [email protected].