Articles Posted in Problems at Broker Dealers

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.”

The investment and securities fraud attorneys at Malecki Law are currently investigating UBS’s Yield Enhancement Strategy (“YES”) for the purpose of investor recoveries. Our attorneys are interested in hearing from investors and others who have information and/or have experienced losses due to UBS YES or other complex yield enhancing investments regardless of the brokerage firm.

It appears that the YES strategy may have been sold to UBS clients as a conservative and low-risk investment strategy that would provide them with an increased yield (income) in their portfolio. In fact, in our opinion, the strategy was an esoteric leveraged options strategy that utilized an options strategy known as the Iron Condor, which is inherently risky as it relies on consistent stability in the markets.

USB YES employing the esoteric Iron Condor strategy uses a leveraged options strategy in a client’s portfolio. UBS would use the client’s assets as collateral in a margin account then execute four different options trades, simultaneously selling calls and puts in an attempt to generate income and buying calls and puts in an attempt to hedge risk. This resulted in the creation of a price spread. If the price of the index or security the options were a derivative of stayed within the spread it would produce a premium to the investor. However, the excessive volatility experienced by the markets recently and most notably in the fourth quarter of 2018 blew through these spreads resulting in serious losses to investors.

Formerly registered broker James Bradly Schwartz is facing charges in a FINRA disciplinary proceeding for allegedly churning customers’ accounts while a registered broker employed with Aegis Capital Corp between August 2014 and May 2016. In this quite brief period, Schwartz allegedly executed around 535 trades in these customer accounts, many of which were unauthorized. The FINRA complaint alleges that Schwartz violated Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Rule 10b-5 thereunder as well as FINRA rules 2010, 2011 and 2020. His alleged victims include a married couple, engineer, estate executer and a deceased individual. It is alleged that Schwartz even made unauthorized and excessive trades while one of the victims was dying in the hospital. Our securities law team is appalled to hear that possibly two unauthorized transactions were made in this customer’s account less than an hour after he passed away.

Churning is a fraudulent activity in which the broker makes excessive trades in light of the customer’s investment objectives. Common signs of churning in investment accounts are high broker commissions and significant investor losses. While Mr. Schwartz’s customers allegedly lost at least $660,000, Schwartz is reported as having pocketed over $194,000 sales credits and commissions, with annualized turnover rates ranged from 19.9 to 54.7 and annualized cost-to-equity ratios between 87% and 120%.  These percentages are above average for their proclaimed non-speculative investment objectives. In an alleged effort to conceal his purported nefarious activities, Schwartz allegedly traded on a riskless principal basis. Trading on a reckless principal basis does not explicitly report the commission costs on customer’s account statements. Our securities attorneys believe that if such measures to hide his activity is true, Schwartz most likely acted with intent to defraud, which fulfilling the churning legal requirement of “scienter”.

This current FINRA disciplinary proceeding is not the first time that Schwartz has been accused of fraudulent activity. In his 18 years in the securities industry, Schwartz accumulated 12 disclosures on his official CRD records, publicly available on Broker Check. Each of the nine customer disputes mentioned on Schwartz’s BrokerCheck reference at least one allegation pertaining to unsuitability, unauthorized trading, or churning. Our New York securities attorneys encourage investors to think twice before working with brokers that have that many negative disclosures mentioned on their records. Even before Schwartz was a registered representative with Aegis Capital Corp for three years in June 2013, he procured a seemingly shady record that should have raised many flags. It is a matter of grave concern that Schwartz may have continued to gain new employment after so many customers made some of the same allegations.

Arbitration is a formal alternative to courtroom litigation for resolving issues with neutral third party “arbitrators” issuing a binding decision after the litigants present their facts and argument. Compared to the usual courtroom procedures, arbitration is a faster, affordable and less formal legal proceeding.  FINRA, a self-regulatory-agency for the securities industry, controls the largest, most prominent arbitration forum for securities disputes. A full FINRA arbitration proceeding from initiation through hearing can take on average 16 months, but cases often are settled before the end. Sick or elderly claimants may request an expedited arbitration process within nine months.

There is a wide range of reasons that investors might want to make a legal claim against their broker-dealer and broker firm. When opening an account with brokerage firms, investors sign a contract that often contains a clause that makes handling disputes through FINRA arbitration mandatory. Notably, investors are bound to arbitrate their securities claim after the Supreme Court upheld binding arbitration provisions in Shearson/American Express Inc. v. McMahon. FINRA registered broker-dealers, and registered representatives are similarly obligated to handle disputes arising through their employment in FINRA arbitration.

The FINRA arbitration process commences when the plaintiff, known as the claimant, submits a statement of claim, outlining the case’s relevant facts, dates, names of involved parties, type of relief requested and name of accused parties. The statement of claim must be filed within the allotted time, which is within six years after the dispute. Compared with a courtroom complaint, a statement of claim is less formal and usually a more detailed account of the background story. In addition to the statement of claim, the claimant needs to pay fees and submit a Submission Agreement. The fees owed for filing a FINRA arbitration claim are based off the sought remedies, hearing sessions, discovery motions and postponement fees. Fortunately, some individuals with financial difficulties can request a fee waiver.

Brokerage firms may sometimes use reporting inaccurate negative information on a departing securities employees’ U-5 records as their “weapon” to keep their customers, according to a Bloomberg article. FINRA records and broker experiences show that brokerage firms occasionally include inaccurate information when filing a Form U-5. While financial advisors and brokers can file an arbitration to have employers remove the erroneous information from their record, many take no action. Securities employment attorneys are unsurprised given that broker and financial advisor cases against the employer, tend to favor big brokerage firms heavily. Financial professionals fear the high cost, time loss, and difficulty getting expungement in a FINRA arbitration.

Brokerage firms provide information regarding an existing employee’s termination in a document entitled, Uniform Termination Notice for Securities Industry Registration Notice – Form U-5. Within 30 days of the broker’s termination, the brokerage dealer must file a Form U-5 with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority pursuant to Article V, Section 3 of the FINRA by-laws. A Form U-5 seeks information pertaining to the circumstances around a respective broker’s termination from the firm. Brokerage firms are obligated to provide accurate, and timely information as well as file any changes on the U5, according to FINRA’s Regulatory Notice 10-39.

It is important to contact a FINRA securities attorney when you first realize that you may be terminated or when you are terminated, to act fast. While a Form U-5 is not “negotiable,” a broker can provide information to the firm to change the firm’s mind on the facts, as well as tell them facts that they may not know. It is worthwhile to try doing so before the filing, as after the filing firms are hesitant to change a U-5 as regulatory agencies could start asking questions regarding the reasoning. No firm wants FINRA regulatory to come knocking on their door.

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