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Posts Tagged ‘arbitration’

FINRA Amends Rules to Incentivize Timely Payment of Arbitration Awards

Posted on: June 17th, 2020

By: Kathleen Cusack and Kirsten Patzer

On May 21, 2020, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) announced that effective September 14, 2020, its Membership Application Program (MAP) rules will be amended to further incentivize the timely payment of arbitration awards. The amendment to MAP will seek to do so by preventing an individual from switching firms and prevent firms from transferring assets to avoid the payment of arbitration awards. Specifically, the amendments will: (1) require members to seek a materiality consultation for changes in ownership, control, or business operations; (2) create a rebuttable presumption to deny an application for membership if the applicant is the subject of an existing claim; (3) require that a member demonstrate the ability to satisfy unpaid or pending arbitration awards; and (4) require that an applicant notify FINRA of any arbitration claim involving the applicant. 

Unpaid arbitration awards have plagued FINRA’s dispute resolution division for years. In 2018 FINRA conducted a study showing that between 2012 and 2016 more than a quarter of all arbitration awards went unpaid.

FINRA’s new MAP rules will adversely impact any financial advisor with a pending arbitration matter seeking to change firms. The rules fail to address the idiosyncrasies of the FINRA arbitration process, which allows any investor to file an arbitration matter without the vetting of their claims. With limited ability to dismiss arbitrations without going to a full hearing, an advisor could be a part of a pending arbitration for years.

The Public Investors Advocate Bar Association (PIABA) has long advocated for an industry funded pool of money to remedy the unpaid award problem and now argue that the new MAP rules do not go far enough. Samuel Edwards, partner at Shepard Smith Edwards & Kantas and president of PIABA said in an interview said that the amended rules should instead “flat-out kick [members who attempt to skirt arbitration awards] out.”

FINRA rules already require that firms and brokers who do not pay their arbitration awards be barred from the industry.

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Kirsten Patzer at [email protected] or Kathleen Cusack at [email protected]

Additional Information:

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Massachusetts Joins Jurisdictions Prohibiting Class-Wide Arbitration of Wage Claims Absent Agreement Expressly Permitting Class Actions

Posted on: May 18th, 2020

By: Kevin Kenneally, Janet Barringer and William Gildea

In a further blow to class action claimants and lawyers, a Massachusetts Superior Court Judge recently ruled a car salesman could not arbitrate Wage Act claims on behalf of coworkers absent an express provision in the employment agreement permitting such a class action.   In Grieco Enterprises, Inc. v. McNamara, the employer sought a declaratory judgment ruling that an employee could not arbitrate wage claims on behalf of a putative class of employees even if his employment contract was silent on the issue and did not expressly prohibit or allow for such a class action. This favorable outcome for employers and insurers follows a similar 2019 ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States holding an ambiguous employment agreement cannot be the basis to compel class-wide arbitration.

In the Massachusetts state court arbitration matter, the employee claimed his employer failed to pay him—and others—required overtime and Sunday-hours premium in violation of state wage laws.  He demanded arbitration on behalf of himself and other similarly-situated commission-only salespeople.  In response, the employer filed the declaratory judgment action in Massachusetts state court seeking determination whether a class action in this instance is permissible.  The Massachusetts Superior Court held class action arbitration is not permissible because the parties’ employment agreement did not expressly permit employees to arbitrate class actions.  The Court held the employee may proceed to arbitration solely on an individual basis. 

The decision in McNamara is garnering attention due to the state’s decision last year concerning commission-based salespeople, Sullivan v. Sleepy’s LLC.  In Sleepy’s, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held commission-paid retail salespeople are entitled to “time-and-a-half” overtime compensation based on the statutory minimum wage — even when their commissions always met or exceeded the state minimum.  Sleepy’s specifically held the overtime and Sunday premium wage statutes applied to commission-paid sales staff.  The McNamara claimant sought to apply this ruling to an entire class of workers rather than having each worker bring an individual claim.  The employment agreement at issue contained a general statement in the agreement it was “in conformity with” Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure—which claimant contended includes procedural rules for class actions, thus tacitly subjecting the employer to class arbitration.  The Superior Court rejected the argument and held the parties to the contract did not expressly agree to engage in class action arbitration.  The judge in McNamara held that if she were to permit the application of an unclear provision to authorize class actions, “unrepresented employees could be bound by an arbitration that he or she did not individually consent to participate in.  Such a result is contrary to the legal underpinnings for arbitration, specifically that it is a consensual contractual matter.”

In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela, 139 S. Ct. 1407, 587 US __, 203 L. Ed. 2d 636  (2019), which was seen as a setback to workers’ ability to join or aggregate the individual claims of other workers who had agreed in their employment contracts to an arbitration forum.  Lamps Plus held in claims subject to the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) an ambiguous agreement cannot be the necessary contractually-agreed basis to force an employer to submit to class-wide arbitration.  The high court agreed with the employer there simply was no foundational agreement to arbitrate the class action and the lower court acted contrary to the primary purpose of the FAA.  Lamps Plus held a lower court may not compel arbitration on a class-wide basis when an agreement is “silent” on the availability of such arbitration and “that private agreements to arbitrate are enforced according to their terms.”  

Employers who incorporate arbitration provisions in their employment agreements for individual basis only will benefit by the uniform application of law in both state and federal courts.  Employers in Massachusetts have certainty absent a specific provision – or even in the face of a vague arbitration provision – class-wide arbitration will not be available to employees whether the claims are based on federal or state law.

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Kevin Kenneally at [email protected], Janet Barringer at [email protected] or William Gildea at [email protected].

Arbitration and Class Action Waivers Upheld in ERISA Plans, but an Industry Shift Toward Arbitration Remains to be Seen

Posted on: September 26th, 2019

By: Justin Boron

The judicial trend in favor of arbitration and class action waivers continues—this time in employee benefit plans.

Last month, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel validated an arbitration and class action waiver agreement contained in an employee retirement plan, and in doing so, it overturned a 1984 precedent holding that fiduciary claims under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”) could not be arbitrated.

In a pair of opinions issued in Dorman v. Charles Schwab Corp.,[1] the panel found that the reasoning in Amaro v. Continental Can Company,[2] was irreconcilable with recent opinions from the U.S. Supreme Court, including American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Rest., which had endorsed an arbitrator’s competence to interpret and apply federal statutes.[3]

The Dorman decision arose from a plan participant’s class action alleging a breach of fiduciary duty that resulted from the inclusion of Schwab affiliated investment funds in the 401k plan.  As yet another affirmation of arbitration and class action waiver agreements, it is sure to attract the attention of plan sponsors and plan fiduciaries.

But it might not necessarily be the game changer that previous class action waiver decisions have proven to be in the consumer and employment context, where companies have rushed to fold class action waivers into sales and employment agreements.

For one, several other circuit courts of appeal had already upheld arbitration agreements in plan documents.[4]  So at least in these circuits, plan sponsors have already been free to include arbitration agreements in employee benefit and retirement plans like the 401k plan at issue in Dorman.  Plaintiff also requested en banc rehearing earlier this month, so Amaro could still be revived.

Other reasons are more practical.  Including class action waivers in arbitration agreements might stave off a class action asserted in federal court.  But in contrast to their effect on wage-and-hour and consumer-protection class actions, class action waivers might not necessarily limit exposure on fiduciary claims under ERISA, which are themselves a kind of representative action brought on behalf of the plan for monetary relief.[5]  The Dorman and other appellate decisions have not expressly addressed whether a plan’s arbitration agreement could confine the action to individual monetary relief as opposed to plan-wide relief.  As a result, any judgment might benefit the plan and plan participants as a whole regardless of whether the action is styled as a class action.

Additionally, the cost savings attributed to arbitration of employment and consumer claims might not be present in ERISA claims, which are often decided on the papers in federal court. In contrast, arbitration likely requires the same amount of attorney time as in federal court, with the added costs of the arbitrator(s) and an arbitration hearing.  Combine the added costs with a limited standard of review, and it might not net a more favorable result than proceeding in federal court in a class action.

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

[1] Dorman v. Charles Schwab Corp., No. 18-cv-15281, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 24735 (9th Cir. Aug. 20, 2019), No. 18-cv-15281, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 24791 (9th Cir. Aug. 20, 2019).
[2] 724 F.2d 747 (9th Cir. 1984).
[3] 570 U.S. 228, 233 (2013).
[4] See, e.g., Williams v. Imhoff, 203 F.3d 758 (10th Cir. 2000); Kramer v. Smith Barney, 80 F.3d 1080 (5th Cir. 1996); Pritzker v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, 7 F.3d 1110 (3d Cir. 1993); Bird v. Shearson Lehman/American Express, 926 F.2d 116 (2d Cir. 1991); Arnulfo P. Sulit, Inc. v. Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc., 847 F.2d 475 (8th Cir. 1988).
[5] 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(2); 29 U.S.C. § 1109.

Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace: Construction Claim Arbitration and Res Judicata

Posted on: August 20th, 2019

By: Catherine Bednar

The Supreme Court of Connecticut recently affirmed the Appellate Court’s determination that when a property owner and a general contractor enter into binding, unrestricted arbitration to resolve disputes, the subcontractors are presumptively in privity with the general contractor for purposes of precluding subsequent litigation against them. In Girolametti v. Michael Horton Assocs., 332 Conn. 67 (June 25, 2019), Connecticut’s Supreme Court joined other jurisdictions in adopting a rebuttable presumption of privity between general contractors and subcontractors on a construction project in applying the doctrine of res judicata.

The Plaintiffs in Girolametti owned a retail store and hired the general contractor, Rizzo Corporation, to construct an expansion. After completion of the project, Plaintiffs and Rizzo entered arbitration to resolve various disputes concerning the Project, including Plaintiffs’ claims for alleged construction defects and delay and Rizzo’s claims for additional payments owed. Perhaps believing they would fare better in separate litigation, Plaintiffs abandoned the proceedings on the thirty-third day of the arbitration, which concluded two days later, and failed to present their damages claim contrary to the arbitrator’s recommendations.  The arbitrator ultimately entered an award in Rizzo’s favor.

Plaintiffs then pursued two lawsuits against Rizzo and five subcontractors collectively, which focused on the design and construction of the building.  All defendants moved for summary judgment on the grounds that Plaintiffs’ claims had or could have been raised and resolved during the arbitration and were therefore barred. The trial judge granted Rizzo’s motion for summary judgment, but denied the subcontractors’ motions, holding the subs were not parties to the arbitration and not in privity with Rizzo. The Appellate Court reversed and granted summary judgment to the defendants.

In affirming the Appellate Court’s decision, the Supreme Court of Connecticut explained that “[w]hen applying the law to complex endeavors such as large-scale commercial construction, it often is desirable to adopt default rules, whether in the form of legal presumptions or standardized contracts.” The court reasoned the new default rule was an efficient and fair tool for resolving construction disputes.  A presumption of privity makes sense because not only is the general contractor in privity of contract with its subcontractors, but the general contractor is also responsible for the work of the subcontractors.  The court noted that absent a default rule, a property owner could relitigate its failed claims against the general contractor by bringing piecemeal, fact-intensive claims against subcontractors. The court also recognized that the default rule (which parties may contract around if they choose) is beneficial to both property owners and contractors by, resolving all outstanding disputes involving work on a project in the context of an owner-general contractor arbitration.

Having adopted the rebuttal presumption of privity between general contractors and subcontractors for the purposes of res judicata, the court found the facts and circumstances in the Girolametti case did not support an exception to the default rule. The court found the Plaintiffs reasonably should have understood the arbitration with Rizzo was the proper forum for addressing any claims against the subcontractors which were foreseeable at the time. In particular, the court pointed to the parties’ use of a standard form owner-contractor construction contract for their prime contract as evidence of their intent to abide by industry norms, making the general contractor responsible for all subcontractor work not separately contracted by the owner. The contract also contained a broad, unrestricted arbitration provision.

The Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision in Girolametti serves as a reminder to parties engaged in complex construction disputes to carefully consider the scope of their arbitration provisions and evaluate the potential need to add claims and join third parties.

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

Increasing Suits to Avoid Arbitrator Administrator Selection Clauses in California UIM Arbitration and Possible Responses

Posted on: July 11th, 2019

By: Timothy Kenna

Many automobile insurance policies designate an Arbitration Administrator to conduct UIM arbitrations under their rules.  Increasingly counsel for the insured are seeking to avoid arbitration under the rules of the selected Administrator arguing that there is an inherent bias created by the designation in the policy.  However, these objections are generally unsupported by any actual facts or credible legal arguments.

California Insurance Code section 11580.2, subdivision (f), provides that an uninsured motorist policy “shall provide that the determination as to whether the insured shall be legally entitled to recover damages, and if so entitled, the amount thereof, shall be made by agreement between the insured and the insurer or, in the event of disagreement, by arbitration.  The arbitration shall be conducted by a single neutral arbitrator.’”

The California appellate courts have routinely upheld arbitration clauses providing for the selection of neutral arbitrators by selected Administrators in a wide range of contexts outside of UIM disputes.  Additionally, Briggs v. Resolution Remedies (2008) 168 Cal.App.4th 1402 upheld the Administrator selection in the UIM arbitration clause involved in that case.  The fact that UIM arbitrations have been conducted under these same provisions for decades with few attacks on the fairness of the results is testament to the fairness of the selections under these policies.

Responses to suits seeking to avoid the selection of Administrator include demurrers and motions to compel arbitration in accordance with the provisions of the UIM arbitration clause and Insurance Code section 11580.2(f).  Sanctions may also be sought.  CCP Section 128.5 provides that “a trial court may order a party, the party’s attorney, or both to pay the reasonable expenses, including attorney’s fees, incurred by another party as a result of bad-faith actions or tactics that are frivolous or solely intended to cause unnecessary delay . . . .”

“Actions or tactics” can include, for example, the making or opposing of motions or the filing and service of a complaint, cross-complaint, answer, or other responsive pleading.  When a tactic or action utterly lacks merit the courts are entitled to infer the party knew it lacked merit and pursued it for some ulterior motive.  Dolan v. Buena Engineers, Inc. (1994) 24 Cal.App.4th 1500, 1505.

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