Articles Posted in Problems at Broker Dealers

Malecki Law filed an expedited FINRA arbitration complaint today on behalf of a retired couple from New York alleging that their brokerage firm Henley & Company LLC failed to supervise its recently deceased, registered representative Philip Incorvia and the Henley branch office he worked out of.  The complaint claims losses of approximately $2.5 million and that Henley essentially allowed Mr. Incorvia’s Ponzi scheme to flourish since about the time he joined Henley in 2006.  Through these alleged supervisory failures and extreme negligence, the complaint alleges that Henley effectively promoted Mr. Incorvia’s fraudulent practices, including allowing him to freely run his own business, Jefferson Resources, Inc., out of the satellite branch office of Henley’s affiliate, SEC-registered investment advisory firm, Henley & Company Wealth Management, LLC, located at 10 Beatty Road, Shoreham, New York.  Mr. Incorvia operated his Ponzi scheme out of this Jefferson entity housed right inside a Henley office, soliciting investor funds away from investor accounts at Henley to be invested directly into private “alternative” (i.e., fictitious) investments with Jefferson.  Mr. Incorvia’s recent passing is what caused the Ponzi scheme to unravel.  A Henley executive named in the complaint has further admitted to the existence of numerous other Henley customers who are only just discovering that they have been victimized as well.

The complaint alleges that Henley knew about the existence of Jefferson being run out of its own office but failed to follow industry rules to both report and supervise the activity. According to Henley’s BrokerCheck Report published by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), the defendant brokerage arm of the firm (Henley & Company LLC) apparently failed to disclose the existence of its10 Beatty Road satellite office to FINRA.  However, Henley’s advisory arm (Henley & Company Wealth Management, regulated by the SEC) did disclose it as an operational branch office in a public ADV filing to the SEC.  The ADV filing further disclosed Henley’s awareness of Jefferson by reporting Mr. Incorvia’s association with Jefferson as its “President.” According to BrokerCheck, both Henley firms are under common supervisory control, have the same main office address in Uniondale, New York, and are owned by the same CEO, Francis P. Gemino, with common oversight by their managing director, Michael J. Laderer.  Both Gemino and Laderer are named in the lawsuit as liable control persons.

FINRA’s supervisory rules require all brokerage firms to disclose and report all outside business activities of its registered representatives, further requiring firms to audit and supervise those businesses, especially if they are small branch offices. Both FINRA and the SEC have made clear that supervision of small, satellite branch offices require the same level of supervision as a main office.  The SEC, for instance, takes the position that geographically dispersed offices staffed by only a few people are more at risk of fraud because “[t]heir distance from compliance and supervisory personnel can make it easier for registered representatives [like Mr. Incorvia] to carry out and conceal violations of the securities laws.”

It is usually a bad sign when a retiree or the typical conservative investor suffers investment losses and brings a case to us where their broker was trading options.  In such instances, it at least bodes well for a customer’s legal case when the investor has limited investing knowledge yet has somehow been approved by their brokerage firm for options trading.  It is a sign that the investor may have been misled by a broker who was not properly supervised by the firm, as firms have a duty to know their customers and recommend investment strategies that are suitable to each investor’s risk tolerance and objectives. Very generally, options are not considered safe for conservative investors, but there are circumstances where they could be.

Options are considered high risk because they are derivatives of an underlying stock price, which gives investors a completely separate asset class of investment to speculate in.  The speculation is a bet that not only tries to predict whether the stock price will go up or down to a particular price (known as a “strike price”), but whether it will reach or exceed that level within a specified timeframe (i.e., by the option contract’s expiration date).  As the time frame gets closer and closer to expiration, the value of the options contract decays and becomes worth less and less over time, until it expires worthless, which is what happens with most options contracts. Moreover, when buying a stock, you simply pay the price of the stock.  When buying an option contract, you pay a premium in addition to the price of the stock (should you decide or have the ability to later exercise that option).  Therefore, buying shares in a specific stock is almost always a safer strategy than buying options for that same security.

Options differ from other asset classes in that they give the buyer (or seller) the right, but not the obligation, to buy (or sell) an underlying stock at a specific price on or before a specific date. It is the premium paid on an option that gives the purchaser the right (but not obligation) to later buy or sell, no different than placing a down payment on a home that you intend to later purchase at the agreed upon price. You could walk away from the purchase later and you only lose the premium.  So by granting an investor a right, rather than an obligation, to transact in a certain security, options provide investors with the opportunity to speculate on the future price movement of that security. Although options allow investors to hedge, add cash flow, and leverage returns, options are inherently risky product because they are complex products that are wholly based on price speculation. It is, therefore, highly critical that your broker discuss all applicable risks with you before having an options trading strategy deployed in your account.

Investors are still watching which way the market is ready to turn after yesterday’s 600-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial average, the biggest one-day drop in over two months. While world markets appeared to be reacting to the prospect of loan defaults by the Evergrande Group – China’s second largest real estate company and the world’s largest property developer –retail investors, and retirees in particular, should keep in mind that this might be the beginning of something bigger. Given that U.S. equities remain at historic highs, portfolios still have a long way to fall.  It is still unclear what ripple effect Evergrande will have even within China, as the Chinese government has yet to formally decide on whether it will bail out Evergrande or let it fail.  But both scenarios are fueling fears of contagion within the U.S. and world markets. Some are calling this China’s “Lehman’s moment,” despite Evergrande’s debt only being about roughly half of the $600 billion in liabilities that Lehman had when it defaulted.  There are rumblings, however, that Evergrande is the canary in the coal mine for China’s numerous other property companies, representing an outsized portion in driving China’s economy and GDP.  The net effect on retail investors in the U.S., thus, depends to some degree on the level of Chinese investment and debt holdings by U.S. companies and financial institutions.

HSBC, BlackRock, and J.P. Morgan have been said to have significant exposure to the Chinese market generally, as do many individual U.S. companies, ranging from Wynn Resorts to Apple.  As always, retail investors who are overconcentrated in any single company or market sector face the biggest risk.  While the stock of many of these companies might seem relatively “safe” over the long term, not every investor can wait for the stock market to rebound.  Seniors and retirees are a prime example, as this is a group regularly identified by U.S. regulators (e.g., FINRA and the SEC) as being vulnerable because they are typically saddled with higher expenses (e.g., medical and age-related expenses) at a time when they need liquidity and are no longer working or earning an income. For this reason, stockbrokers and financial advisors have a legal duty to retirees to recommend investments and an investment strategy that is suitable for this stage of life and the possibility that the stock market will not just continue to rise in perpetuity.

For retirees, overconcentration of an investment portfolio is often the culprit of an investment strategy or recommendation gone wrong.  As we have written in this space before, brokers and financial advisors have long been required to have a reasonable basis for recommending an investment or strategy.  And as of June 30, 2020, brokerage firms have had to comply with a new SEC rule, Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI), which further requires every recommendation to be in a customer’s best interests.  Overconcentrating a retiree’s investment portfolio in largely equities (or worse, a single equity) is typically not in a retiree’s best interests and is what makes a portfolio most vulnerable to significant market events like Evergrande. Even though regulators do their best to raise the public’s awareness of this fact, retail enthusiasm during a bull market often drowns out the well-worn refrain to not put all your eggs in one basket.  FINRA’s “Concentrate on Concentration Risk” publication is just one such warning.

While the stock market and S&P 500 continue to hit all time highs, many investors still have the 2008 market collapse fresh in their memories and know that this historic bull run could, and likely will, come to an end.  There are many signs that the market is overheated, leading some to have speculated that a correction is inevitable, if not imminent.  One of many lessons from prior market collapses is that the investment portfolios most at risk are those which are not properly diversified and may be overly concentrated in either one security or one particular sector of the market.  For retirees, in particular, it is possible to sue and recover such investment losses when following the advice of a licensed financial advisor.

The cratering of an investment portfolio can come as a shock to most investors, particularly retirees who have increased medical and age-related expenses, and are thus unable to afford a long wait until the market bounces back.  In some instances, legal action may be necessary to recover the lost funds. While there is less legal recourse for investors who choose their own investments through a self-directed brokerage platform, the opposite is true for investors who still rely on licensed stockbrokers for financial advice.  Both financial advisors and their brokerage firms can be held liable for recommending investment decisions that are poorly suited to the investor’s needs.

The brokerage industry is regulated by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), which, until recently, has long imposed FINRA Rule 2111, known as the “Suitability Rule” on all licensed stockbrokers and the brokerage firms that employ them.  Under Rule 2111, brokers were required to have a reasonable basis for recommending a transaction that reasonably considers a broad range of factors, which “includes, but is not limited to, the customer’s age, other investments, financial situation and needs, tax status, investment objectives, investment experience, investment time horizon, liquidity needs, risk tolerance, and any other information the customer may disclose to the member or associated person in connection with such recommendation.”

On July 20, 2020, the Securities and Exchange Commission brought investment advisor and former registered representative Michael “Barry” Carter up on multiple federal charges relating to the alleged misappropriation of over $6 million in funds.  Mr. Carter allegedly stole this money from his brokerage customers, including nearly $1 million from one elderly client, defrauding them in the process in an effort to remain undetected.  His alleged fraudulent acts occurred between the fall of 2007 and spring of 2019 while working at Morgan Stanley, with over 40% of the misappropriation occurring in the last five years, all to sustain his extravagant lifestyle.

Mr. Carter was reportedly fired from Morgan Stanley in the summer of 2019 for misappropriation of funds.  Later that fall, FINRA launched an investigation into his alleged crimes and he was then barred by FINRA for refusing to turn over documents relating to the alleged misappropriations.

Additionally, the state of Maryland reportedly brought criminal charges against Mr. Carter, to which he has already pled guilty to the investment advisory fraud charges and wire fraud; as part of his plea agreement he will, according to prosecutors, be required to pay back about $4.3 million, the total net proceeds of his illegal activities.

Can a Broker-Dealer Firm be Sued for Failure to Supervise a Broker?

Broker-dealers, also known as brokerage firms, are routinely sued for “failure to supervise” claims.  The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), the organization which regulates broker-dealers and their employees, has a series of rules requiring broker-dealers to establish and maintain a supervisory system to supervise its brokers and other employees, as well as to monitor all trading activity to ensure compliance with applicable securities laws and regulations.  In many of our clients’ cases, the brokerage firm’s lack of supervision and failure to properly supervise a broker’s misconduct has directly and indirectly impacted our clients’ accounts, causing losses.  Malecki Law’s FINRA arbitration attorneys have handled many cases against brokerage firms in New York (and across the country) for failure to supervise and have received favorable monetary awards and settlements for our clients.

A supervisory system that cannot reasonably surveil and detect trades that violate securities laws and deceptive trade practices does not meet FINRA’s minimum requirement of proper supervision.  Moreover, proper supervision also requires a firm supervisor to approve a broker’s daily trades, as well as to systematically review clients’ accounts for wrongful trading activity such as recommending unsuitable investments, trading without proper authority from the customer, or charging high commissions that make it virtually impossible for the customer to make any sort of profit.

Investors often ask whether a clearing firm can be liable for losses sustained in their accounts.  The answer is “yes.”  Traditionally, clearing firms, also known as clearing houses, are financial institutions established to handle the confirmation, settlement, and delivery of transactions.  To ensure its clients’ transactions are made in a prompt and efficient manner, the clearing firm acts as a middle-man and is essentially the buyer and seller in the transactions.  To attract business and compete with other clearing firms, clearing firms offer an ever-expanding suite of services that go beyond mere routine clearing functions, which often brings them to be actively and directly involved in the actions of brokerage firms and their brokers.  Courts have held that clearing firms that extend services beyond “mere ministerial or routine functions” can be liable to an investor for a broker-dealer or broker’s misdeeds.

On behalf of several investor clients, Malecki Law’s FINRA arbitration attorneys are currently investigating cases involving claims against Pershing, LLC, a clearing house, and its introducing brokerage firm client, Insight Securities, Inc.  The claims involve an SEC-censured entity, Biscayne Capital.  Our clients sustained losses in their accounts due, in part, to Pershing’s alleged negligent supervision of transactions through its shared platform with Insight.

In relationships like this, the introducing firm and clearing firm have a clearing agreement, usually giving the clearing firm discretion to terminate any account, the responsibility to notify the introducing broker of suspicious activity, and to provide training or trained employees to look out for misconduct.  Usually the clearing firm has the responsibility to conduct regulatory monitoring of SEC Financial Responsibility Rules and to be directly involved in Anti-Money Laundering oversight.  Thus, with these heightened responsibilities, a clearing firm can move beyond its ministerial and routine clearing functions.

U.S. oil prices have been on a roller coaster ride over the last few weeks, at one point dropping below $0 for the first time in history to -$37.63 a barrel.  Oil has since rebounded from its subzero levels, but it remains questionable as to whether it can stay there.  It begs the question, what does this mean for investors and the U.S. oil market generally?

When prices cratered below zero, there were those that weighed in that it was nothing to worry about.  After all, the subzero price drop really had more to do with the expiration of contracts for oil futures.  It was explained that the current demand for oil is so low that producers would rather put their oil in storage and then sell it at some point in the future.  Placing additional strain on the market, the U.S. is running out of places to store it, with backlogs of oil tankers from Saudi Arabia out at sea and being turned away from U.S. shipping ports.

The U.S. has traditionally been a net importer of oil, but with the emergence of oil fracking, the U.S. at one point in 2019 surpassed Saudi Arabia as the world’s top oil exporter.  This trend towards parity gave many observers of the U.S. oil market a feeling of confidence that the U.S. was a rising oil power, with President Trump going so far as describing the U.S. level of participation as “energy dominance.”  But as pointed out by professionals, increased participation in the market has little to do with control over the market.  For instance, the price of U.S. oil recently began to spiral down when Russia and Saudi Arabia started to increase their production levels.  U.S. oil prices teetered even further, and then below zero, when the global and U.S. economic response to the spread of Covid-19 began to take shape – every state being under some level of a stay-at-home order, with fewer cars on the road, fewer people travelling by air, and U.S. oil workers in Texas and elsewhere being laid off in the tens of thousands.  The pumps have stopped and oil companies are already declaring bankruptcy, with likely more to follow.

Last week, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) censured and assessed a fine of $50,000 against a national investment firm, Paulson Investment Company LLC, in connection with its sale and solicitation of private placement offerings to investors, in violation of Rule 506 of Regulation D and Section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933.  Among other things, Regulation D (more commonly known as Reg D) provides a legal “safe harbor” for investment firms to sell and market private placements, which are restricted securities (i.e., not traded on a public market and therefore carry more risk), to no more than 35 non-accredited investors, provided the firm has a pre-existing relationship with that investor.  The law is intended to prevent advertising and marketing to non-accredited investors – a legal term for those who do not have the requisite financial means to bear risk or who are unsophisticated and cannot appreciate the risks of purchasing an investment that is typically illiquid and cannot readily be traded on a national exchange.  In violation of Reg D, as well as FINRA Rule 2010 (requiring all member firms to conduct their business with high standards of commercial honor), FINRA found that Paulson solicited 11 individuals and sold six separate private placement offerings, totaling approximately $4.5 million, prior to having a pre-existing and substantive relationship with these investors.

Perhaps this barely registers as a newsworthy event; brokerage firms are censured and fined all the time by regulators, and for much more than $50,000.  Paulson is considered a small to medium-sized firm and it is registered in 53 states and territories.  The firm has been licensed as a member brokerage firm with FINRA since 1971 and has carried its registration as an investment advisory firm with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) since 1983.  However, there are other recent developments at Paulson, particularly at its 40 Wall Street office in New York City, which should give pause to any investor or prospective retiree.

While Paulson derives more than 50% of its revenue from underwriting activities, it also engages in general brokerage activities by buying and selling investments for retail investors.  Among the brokers or registered employees at its Wall Street address, there are currently seven individuals with at least 3 or more public disclosures in the Central Registration Depository (CRD) known as BrokerCheck, a national database that tracks the background and disciplinary history of stockbrokers and other financial professional concerning customer complaints, regulatory or criminal events, and other financial disclosures (such as personal bankruptcy or tax liens).  This is significant, because, according to FINRA, most brokers have a clean history, with approximately 4% having been subject to at least one customer complaint, but only less than 0.41% with 3 or more BrokerCheck complaints.   Paulson’s Wall Street office alone employs seven such individuals with 3 or more disclosures.  But this is only scratching the surface.

Last week, a New York City panel of arbitrators with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) unanimously awarded an investor represented by Malecki Law over $200,000 in damages, plus attorneys’ fees of $67,000 and 5% interest dating back to May 2018.  The panel’s award found the New Jersey-based brokerage firm Network 1 Financial Securities Inc. to be liable in connection with the investor’s allegations of unsuitable investment recommendations, misrepresentations (NY General Business Law § 349), and failure to supervise its broker/financial adviser, Robert Ciaccio, who now has 7 disclosures on his public FINRA BrokerCheck disciplinary record (5 customer complaints and 2 regulatory censures).  The investment at issue was Proshares Ultra Bloomberg Crude Oil 2X (otherwise known by its stock symbol UCO), which Mr. Ciaccio recommended to the investor but failed to disclose the numerous risks associated with this product, which belongs to a group of products known as Non-Traditional Exchange Traded Funds (or Non-Traditional ETFs).

FINRA, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and other regulators have repeatedly warned firms against selling Non-Traditional ETFs because they are difficult to understand and carry risks that are not easily understood by the typical investor.  Unlike a simple investment like a stock or bond, Non-Traditional ETFs are fee-laden, structured products, built with derivatives and complex mathematical formulas, which, in “simplest” terms, offer leverage and are designed to perform inversely to an outside benchmark index (e.g., the S&P 500, VIX, etc.).  Noting the popularity of these high-risk, high-cost products, FINRA has issued numerous investor alerts and warnings to member brokerage firms about Non-Traditional ETFs, stating:

“While such products may be useful in some sophisticated trading strategies, they are highly complex financial instruments that are typically designed to achieve their stated objectives on a daily basis. Due to the effects of compounding, their performance over longer periods of time can differ significantly from their stated daily objective. Therefore, inverse and leveraged ETFs that are reset daily typically are unsuitable for retail investors who plan to hold them for longer than one trading session, particularly in volatile markets….  In particular, recommendations to customers must be suitable and based on a full understanding of the terms and features of the product recommended; sales materials related to leveraged and inverse ETFs must be fair and accurate; and firms must have adequate supervisory procedures in place to ensure that these obligations are met.”

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