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Archive for the ‘Financial Services and Banking Litigation’ Category

Beware of FINRA’s Increased Focus on Non-Registered, Associated Persons

Posted on: August 9th, 2019

By: Elizabeth Lowery

On July 29, 2019, FINRA announced that Citigroup Global Markets, Inc. was fined $1.25 million for failing to conduct timely or adequate background checks on approximately 10,400 non-registered associated persons spanning a seven-year period from 2010 to 2017.  This large fine issued even though  Citigroup had completed screening and fingerprinting which was fully compliant with federal banking law for some of those employees.  Citigroup’s failure to screen all such employees as required by the more stringent federal securities laws allowed three individuals to associate with, or remain associated with Citigroup, even though they were subject to statutory disqualification from associating with a brokerage firm because of previous criminal convictions.  FINRA found that Citigroup had failed to maintain a reasonable supervisory system which had procedures to identify and screen non-registered associated persons.  In settling this matter, Citigroup consented to the entry of FINRA’s findings and to the corresponding $1.25 million fine, without admitting or denying FINRA’s charges.  FINRA’s Executive Vice President of its Department of Enforcement, Susan Schroeder, explained “FINRA member firms must live up to their responsibility as a gatekeeper protecting investors from bad actions.  It is important that firms appropriately screen all employees for past criminal or regulatory events that can disqualify individuals from associating with member firms, even in a non-registered capacity.”

This is yet one of several recent examples of FINRA’s focus on non-registered, associated persons.  Pursuant to FINRA Rule 8310, FINRA may impose sanctions, such as a censure, fine, suspension or bar, upon a person associated with a brokerage firm for violations not only of FINRA rules, but also for violations of certain federal securities laws and MSRB rules.  Such sanctions typically stem from FINRA enforcement actions.  FINRA enforcement actions often begin with a request for documents, information and/or sworn testimony, commonly called an “8210 Requests” because they are made pursuant to FINRA Rule 8210.  While registered associated persons, such as those holding a stockbroker’s license, are generally aware that they are subject to FINRA’s jurisdiction, scrutiny and sanctions; non-registered associated persons often lack such awareness.  It is important for brokerage firms and their employees to be mindful that FINRA’s jurisdiction, and its rules and enforcement actions, are not limited to registered associated persons.  This is especially since FINRA’s trend of increased focus on non-registered associated persons is expected to continue.

If you have any questions or would like assistance with a FINRA or SEC enforcement action, or with FINRA 8210 Requests, please contact Elizabeth Lowery at [email protected].

Next Up Libra: Regulating Cryptocurrency

Posted on: July 23rd, 2019

By: David Molinari

Reluctance to accept cryptocurrency as a medium of exchange continues to focus, in substantial part, on the inability to regulate a virtual form of currency.

Cryptocurrencies were originally meant to be stateless entities, not beholden to legal frameworks of any state or country.  Such intent was/is short-sighted if the goal is to function as an alternative currency.  Regulation is the doorway through which cryptocurrency must pass to be considered a viable system of currency for everyday transactions.  The word “regulation” has taken on a negative meaning.  “Regulation is bad for (fill in the blank)” is a familiar refrain.  However, regulation, at least concerning currency markets and exchanges, establishes rules and order.  When the currency alternatives are defined by the term “virtual,” proponents of cryptocurrency will face skepticism.  In the absence of federal directives on the cryptocurrencies, some states have tried to take matters into their own hands.  The result is a patchwork approach trying to meld old currency regulations to control the new frontier of cryptocurrencies.  Perhaps as a nod to the inevitable choice of government regulation or irrevocable stamp of “outlaw,” Facebook’s executive, David Marcus, in recent statements before the Senate Banking Committee noted that Libra will get “appropriate approvals” from regulatory agencies and be subject to regulatory oversight and review.

But what does regulatory oversight look like in a virtual currency world? How can any state or the Federal Government regulate a system where any major corporation with international reach can create their own form of cryptocurrency.  Cryptocurrencies raise concerns of national security because virtual currencies have the potential for illicit activities such as money laundering or facilitating other unlawful behavior.  The virtual currency market was created so digital asset service providers can operate in the shadows of no regulation.  Also, cryptocurrencies are highly volatile because exactly what backs the currency?  What is the value of any cryptocurrency at any time?  How can the system be protected from fraud?

There are three aspects that should be covered when attempting to establish a system of regulation for virtual currency: The use of cryptocurrencies as legal tender in business transactions, imposing authority on operation of cryptocurrency exchanges as money transmitters; and the status of smart contracts and Ethereum Tokens.

The first two factors seem amendable to the type of regulatory framework of establishing a commissioner or government arm that is responsible to evaluate whether the crypto/digital currency has capital enough to ensure safety and soundness of the currency for consumer protection.  A minimum amount of capital should be maintained by the cryptocurrency provider measured by total assets, total liabilities, the expected value of the virtual business activity, the amount of leverage employed and liquidity.

A difficult factor is determining a definition of “digital unit” to be used as a form of stored value.  Further, should there be carve-outs for online gaming platforms, digital units used exclusively as part of a consumer affinity or rewards program; or, digital units redeemable for goods, services or purchases exclusively with the issuer or designated merchant.

Libra is the latest threat to an old guard established financial system.  Where Facebook’s Libra allegedly differs is it is not intended to compete with the US or other countries’ sovereign currency; and therefore, won’t interfere with central banks on monetary policy. Yet by the very nature of being an alternative currency, Libra like other cryptocurrencies are competitors and disruptors of established currency markets.  A competitor is seen as a threat in most environments; when the environment is a financial system, competitors are a threat that raise serious concerns.  Libra, like other cryptocurrencies were designed to be independent of legal frameworks.  Regulation is the opposite to cryptocurrency’s design.  While such opposites in another environment or market would cripple any new product or service, cryptocurrency as a technology, is an idea whose development isn’t tied to or halted by government oversight.  While it is quaint to conclude cryptocurrency will be forced to adjust to government’s brand of regulation, that may not be accurate in this situation.  Cryptocurrencies are operating and will go on and continue to be unregulated. It is the regulating bodies that are playing catch-up.

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact David Molinari at [email protected].

Duties of Care and Loyalty Coming to Investments Near You

Posted on: June 28th, 2019

By: Matthew Jones

The approval of Regulation Best Interest by the Securities and Exchange Commission last month continues to spark debate and controversy, and the future of the Rule remains uncertain.  The Rule’s implementation was set for June 30, 2020. However, on June 27, 2019, the United States House of Representatives passed a bill that would strip the SEC of its ability to implement the Regulation Best Interest package. The bill would prohibit the SEC from spending funds for Regulation Best Interest and the other items included in the Regulation. It is unclear whether the bill will pass both the Senate and White House, but the initial reaction is that the President will likely be advised to veto the bill.

Perhaps anticipating this potential obstacle, last week, Massachusetts released its own proposed fiduciary rule and is accepting comments until July 26, 2019. Its proposed rule requires that advice must be provided in the best interest of the customers without regard to the interests of the broker-dealer, advisory firm, or its personnel. The proposed standard permits the payment of transaction-based fees if the fee is reasonable, is the best of the reasonably available fee options, and the “care” obligation is complied with. This proposal applies to recommendations, advice, and the selection of account types. The stated goal of this standard is to protect the public interest and investors alike. This idea is nothing new, as the SEC’s Regulation Best Interest was designed to address and prevent similar issues. However, Massachusetts points out that the SEC Regulation fails to establish a strong and uniform fiduciary standard and fails to define the term “best interest.”

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Matthew Jones at [email protected].

The SEC Seeks to Enhance the Quality and Transparency of Investors’ Relationships; Approves the Regulation Best Interest Rule

Posted on: June 17th, 2019

By: Joseph Suarez

On June 5, 2019, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) approved its Best Interest Rule (the “Rule”) package requiring broker-dealers, and investment advisors, to act in their retail clients’ “best interests.” The SEC states the Rule, “will impose a materially heightened standard of conduct for broker-dealers when serving retail clients.” Broker-dealers must begin complying with the new rule, and broker-dealers and investment advisers must prepare, deliver to retail investors, and file a “relationship summary” by June 30, 2020.

The Rule is designed to enhance investor protections while preserving retail investor access and choice in: (1) the type of professional with whom they work, (2) the services they receive, and (3) how they pay for these services. In order to satisfy the new best interest standard of care, a broker-dealer who makes recommendations to a retail customer must fulfill four obligations: 1) a “disclosure obligation”; 2) a “duty of care” obligation; 3) a “conflicts of interest” obligation; and, 4) a “compliance obligation.” The duty of care obligation requires a broker-dealer to exercise reasonable “diligence, care and skill” when making investment recommendations. This obligation is similar to FINRA’s suitability rules. In order to satisfy the best interest obligation, a broker-dealer must understand and communicate the “risk, rewards and costs of any recommendation;” have a reasonable basis to believe that the recommendation is in the best interest of the customer; and refrain from making “excessive” recommendations, given the customer’s investment profile.

Regardless of whether a retail investor chooses a broker-dealer or an investment adviser, the retail investor will be entitled to a recommendation (if (s)he chooses a broker-dealer) or advice (if (s)he uses an investment adviser) that is in the retail investor’s best interest and that does not place the interests of the firm or the financial professional ahead of the retail investor’s interests. Nonetheless, the Rule’s perceived uncertainty is cause for division. The SEC claims the Rule is designed to enhance the quality and transparency of retail investors’ relationships with broker-dealers and advisors. Proponents say the Rule will elevate the standard for what is considered an investor’s best interest, specifically, that broker-dealers will need to make substantial changes to enhance investor protection. Opponents argue the Rule is too vague and retains a muddled standard that will not change any practices in the brokerage industry.

Given the current uncertainty, the question becomes: will the Rule cause more litigation? Given the near immediate scrutiny, the answer may be in the affirmative. The Plaintiff’s Bar will likely argue that the Rule now provides customers with a higher standard of care than the suitability standard in furtherance of asserting claims against broker-dealers. In any event, the Rule’s lack of clarity will surely stir debate over the next year before its implementation.

For more information, please contact Joseph Suarez at [email protected].

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].