Next week, the New York State Bar Association’s Securities Arbitration Committee will be hosting a timely conversation on the future of mandatory arbitration. For the last 35 years, retail investors seeking recovery of stock market investment losses have had no other choice but to arbitrate their disputes at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). Prior to 1987, investors were able to bring lawsuits in the courts, but that all changed with the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Shearson/American Express v. McMahon, 483 U.S. 1056 (1987). Moderating this event is Jenice L. Malecki, principal and founder of Malecki Law, and also the Co-Chair of the Securities Arbitration Committee. She has been on FINRA’s National Arbitration and Mediation Committee, on the board of the Public Investors Advocate Bar Association (PIABA), and is an Adjunct Professor at New York Law School. Invited speakers to the event include Michael Edmiston, the current president of PIABA, Tracey McNeil, Ombudsman for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and Angela Turiano, counsel and principal for Bressler Amery and Ross.
The benefits of arbitration have always been the economy of the process, typically involving less costs and faster recovery times than court. Compared to courts, arbitrations further allow very limited grounds for appeal. Arbitrators also have wider latitude than judges to grant relief to investors based on principles of equity and fairness – i.e., not necessarily having to adhere to legal precedent of earlier court decisions. This is a double-edged sword, however, because the potential downside is that arbitrators, who are under no obligation to explain their awards, have similar latitude to depart from substantive law to the detriment of the investor. The speed and economy of the arbitration process has also come under scrutiny, especially with the Covid-19 backlog of in-person arbitration hearings at FINRA. The fairness of the process has also long been criticized in terms of the quality of the arbitrators and the “neutral” arbitrator selection process managed by FINRA.
What makes this event particularly timely is the very recent news out of a Georgia state court decision, which overturned and vacated an arbitrator award that denied investor claims in favor of the prevailing firm, Wells Fargo. The court made this rare reversal of an arbitration award because, in the court’s determination, Wells Fargo allegedly had an undisclosed “side agreement” with FINRA to exclude certain arbitrators considered to be “investor friendly.” The court agreed with the investor’s position that this side agreement created a bias against the investor because “[p]ermitting one lawyer to secretly red line the neutral list makes the list anything but neutral, and calls into question the entire fairness of the arbitral forum.” Brian Leggett and Bryson Holdings, LLC vs. Wells Fargo Clearing Services, LLC et al., File No. 2019CV328949, Superior Court of Georgia, Fulton County (January 25, 2022). The news of this decision has intensified pressure on FINRA to not only investigate the matter, but to possibly reform the arbitration process, something that has long been called for by members of Congress and investor advocate organizations like PIABA.