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FMG Law Blog Line

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].

Avoiding Legal Malpractice Tip: Don’t Sue Your Client For Fees

Posted on: June 17th, 2019

By: Greg Fayard

Sometimes clients don’t pay their attorneys’ fees. Should the unpaid lawyer sue his or her client for owed legal fees? While the lawyer certainly has the right to file suit, a lawsuit against a client can trigger a cross-claim for legal malpractice or breach of fiduciary duty. If you don’t want a lawsuit with your client, it is better to not file a lawsuit against your client. If, however, you have no choice (e.g., the amount is significant and the client is ignoring your collection efforts), make sure you file it after the statute of limitations has run on a legal malpractice claim. In California, wait more than one-year after you ended your representation or performed any legal work for the now delinquent former client. Better yet, before you decide to bring a claim for fees, conduct an analysis of any tolling provisions in the legal malpractice statute, such as when the delinquent client knew or should have known of any facts that could support a malpractice claim, or when the delinquent client suffered an “actual injury.”

Some lawyers prefer the slightly less formal process of resolving fee disputes through fee arbitration available through county bar associations, or the State Bar.

Regardless of the forum, before bringing a claim for fees, whether in fee arbitration or in court, double check your insurance policy to verify that a cross-claim for legal malpractice is a covered claim. Lastly, ask yourself, is paying your deductible and possible higher insurance premiums in future years worth filing a fee claim? More often than not, the answer is “no.”

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Greg Fayard at [email protected], or any other member of our Lawyers Professional Liability Practice Group, a list of which can be found at www.fmglaw.com.

Resilient Design: A Future Requirement?

Posted on: June 17th, 2019

By: Catherine Bednar

Today’s headlines reflect an increasing awareness of climate change and its impacts – rising sea levels, heightened flood risks, and potential wildfires, to name a few. Scientific research and political debate over the causes/effects of and policy responses to climate change will undoubtedly remain at the forefront of our news. Related to these issues, the construction field is seeing new developments in the area of resilient design.

Resilient design is the design of buildings and infrastructure to withstand events such as weather extremes, economic disruption and resource depletion.  Resilient design encompasses the anticipation of various hazards, including but not limited to those related to climate change.  Essentially, resilient design is about expecting the not-so-unexpected.

In December 2018, the U.S. Green Building Council, Inc. (“USGBC”) released its RELi™  2.0 Rating System to “help identify and reduce the risk of damage to a project in the event of a natural disaster or other crisis.” The new rating system includes many credits drawn from USGBC’s LEED certification program. RELi includes 15 mandatory requirements falling into eight separate categories: panoramic approach; hazard preparedness; hazard mitigation and adaptation; community cohesion, social and economic vitality; productivity, health and diversity; energy, water and on-site food production; materials and artifacts; and applied creativity. RELi 2.0 is currently being piloted and is available to LEED-registered projects.

In recent years, design professionals and insurance carriers have questioned whether “green” design and “sustainable” design concepts have impacted the standard of care. Going forward, we can expect to see a greater focus on “resilient” design in projects, whether through voluntary certification programs like RELi, state and local regulations and guidelines, or even professional liability claims.

For more information, please contact Catherine Bednar at [email protected].

Third Circuit Rules Against the City of Williamsport in Lawsuit Filed Against Insurance Companies Based on Law Enforcement Policy Coverage

Posted on: June 14th, 2019

By: Michelle Yee

In 2015, there was major news coverage that a former Williamsport police officer pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter and several other charges. This case stems from a fatal automobile accident that occurred between James David Robinson and a Williamsport police officer. The officer was traveling at 101 mph with emergency lights and sirens activated on East Third Street, which has a 35-mph limit. The officer then passed three vehicles, including Robinson’s, and crashed into Robinson’s vehicle which burst into flames when it struck against a utility pole. Robinson’s mother sued the City and the police officer for the officer’s negligence and recklessness, which caused the fatal collision and death of Robinson. After the City unsuccessfully moved to dismiss the constitutional claims, this matter settled for $1,000,000.

The City filed a lawsuit against CNA Insurance and National Fire Insurance Company of Hartford, both of which has a $1 million limit, for refusing to provide more than $500,000 in total to cover for the settlement. This case, City of Williamsport v. CNA Insurance Companies and National Fire Insurance Company of Hartford, was recently heard before the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The Defendants argued that their liability under the Automobile Policy is limited to $500,000 because the policy covers the “sums [the City] legally must pay as damages” and Pennsylvania law caps the state law tort liability against local agencies at $500,000. The Court rejected this argument and ruled that Defendants cannot dismiss this matter based on the City’s Automobile Policy because the state tort law does not place a liability cap for federal claims against the officer, which must be indemnified by the City. The court agreed with the City.

The City of Williamsport then argued that the Law Enforcement Policy’s coverage for civil rights violation should apply to this settlement. On the other hand, Defendants argued that the policy’s automobile exclusion precludes coverage. The Court held for the Defendants. It reasoned that the City sought to hold the office liable for his conduct while driving and the city is responsible for its supervision and training of its officers. Further, the court interpreted the language of the Law Enforcement Policy, as excluding coverage for damages arising out of the operation of any automobiles in the course of employment. Therefore, the Court dismissed the City’s claims to seek recovery under this policy because the damages were proximately caused by an automobile.

The Court finally dismissed the City’s insurance bad faith claim holding that the City did not allege that the Defendants “knew or recklessly disregarded the lack of reasonable basis when denying the City’s claims,” as required by law. However, the Court noted that this dismissal is without prejudice and the City may amend its Complaint to cure this deficiency.

For more information, please contact Michelle Yee at [email protected].

The State Bar of California Moves to Suspend Michael Avenatti’s Law License

Posted on: June 11th, 2019

By: Paige Pembrook

On June 3, the State Bar of California filed a petition to place attorney Michael Avenatti – infamous for his past representation of Stephanie Clifford (a.k.a. Stormy Daniels) and his own present legal woes – on involuntary inactive status, which is the first step toward disbarment. The State Bar action follows Avenatti’s indictment for his alleged embezzlement of millions of dollars from clients in California, conduct that the Bar says poses “a substantial threat of harm to clients or the public.”

The State Bar petition primarily focuses on the case of former Avenatti client Gregory Barela, who alleges that Avenatti illegally withheld settlement funds and then repeatedly lied about it. Barela alleges that Avenatti did not disclose receipt of Barela’s settlement funds despite Barela’s repeated inquiries over several months, that Avenatti refused to provide an accounting of the settlement funds as required by California law, and that Avenatti presented Barela with a falsified settlement agreement that misrepresented that dates that payment would be received.

The State Bar stated that Avenatti provided no defense or response to the State Bar investigators. Avenatti disagreed and stated that he “offered to cooperate with the Bar and instead they decided to issue a press release as a stunt.” Avenatti has until June 13 to file a formal response and request a hearing, or else he will waive his right to a hearing.

Although the allegations in the State Bar petition to suspend Avenatti’s license appear extreme, all attorneys should be wary of misappropriating client funds in violation of California Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 1.15, and Business and Profession Code section 610. Under Rule 1.15, attorneys have a duty to properly hold, manage, and account for money held in trust on behalf of clients, and sometimes on behalf of others. An attorney violates Rule 1.15 when the attorney’s trust account balance falls below the amount required to be held on behalf of his or her clients, and it is due to a willful act of the attorney, regardless of the attorney’s explanation. If the Rule 1.15 violation occurs due to the attorney’s dishonesty, recklessness, or grossly negligent management of the client trust account, then the misappropriation of client funds also violates Business and Profession Code section 6106 and almost always results in severe discipline, including possible disbarment.

Whether or not they are in the public spotlight, all attorneys must attentively manage their client trust account to ensure that they always contain the amounts held on behalf of clients. Otherwise, those attorneys may be exposed to State Bar discipline, disbarment, and civil liability to their clients, just like Avenatti.

For more information, please contact Paige Pembrook at [email protected].