Per Supreme Court, Anti-Discrimination Principles Apply to Arbitration Agreements

Thursday, May 25, 2017

In a decision that seems to draw inspiration from equal protection jurisprudence, the Supreme Court has reiterated that federal law bars discrimination against arbitration agreements.  State law rules that "single out" arbitration agreements for "disfavored treatment" violate federal law.  The opinion, Kindred Nursing Centers, L.P. v. Clark, 581 U.S. __ (2017), reinforces and strengthens a line of Supreme Court precedent making clear that arbitration agreements receive special protection by virtue of the Federal Arbitration Act and that state attempts to nibble away at such agreements will not stand.

The underlying case involved a family's attempt to have a jury decide whether a nursing home provided bad care to their relatives, causing their deaths.  The Kentucky Supreme Court declined to apply an arbitration clause contained in nursing home paperwork, under a state law rule that effectively singled out arbitration agreements for special (disfavored) treatment.

On appeal, the Supreme Court said that any state law rule that "on its face" or "covertly" disfavors arbitration agreements violates the Federal Arbitration Act.  The Court also made clear that the same anti-discrimination-in-arbitration principle applies to contract formation and contract enforcement.

The bottom line is that any state court interpreting the scope, application, or enforcement of an arbitration agreement -- or pretty much anything about arbitration agreements -- had better rely on case law having nothing to do with arbitration agreements and show that it treats other garden variety types of contracts the same way that it treats contracts to arbitrate.


FINRA Receives SEC Approval on Rule Proposal Addressing Financial Exploitation of Seniors

Monday, April 3, 2017

What Can FINRA do to curb financial exploitation by seniors?  The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission recently (March 30, 2017) approved two steps to protect senior investors to be included in new FINRA Rule 2165 (Financial Exploitation of Specified Adults).

First, firms will be required to make reasonable efforts to obtain the name and contact information for a trusted contact person for a customer’s account. Second, firms will be permitted to place a temporary hold on a disbursement of funds or securities when there is reasonable belief of financial exploitation.
According to FINRA's announcement, here, "These rules will provide firms with tools to respond more quickly and effectively to protect seniors from financial exploitation. This project included input and support from both investor groups and industry representatives and it demonstrates a shared commitment to an important, common goal – protecting senior investors," said Robert W. Cook, FINRA President and CEO.
According to FINRA, The trusted contact person is intended to be a resource for firms in handling customer accounts, protecting assets and responding to possible financial exploitation of any vulnerable investors. The new rule allowing firms to place a temporary hold provides them and their associated persons with a safe harbor from certain FINRA rules. This provision will allow firms to investigate the matter and reach out to the customer, the trusted contact and, when appropriate, law enforcement or adult protective services, before disbursing funds when there is a reasonable belief of financial exploitation. It is a critical measure because of the difficulty investors face in trying to recover funds that they have inadvertently sent to fraudsters and scam artists.
FINRA will also amend its New Account Application Template, a voluntary model brokerage account form that is provided as a resource to firms when they design or update their new account forms, to capture trusted contact person information.
The Rule change is effective February 5, 2018.

New FINRA Aribrator Selection Process Improves Arbitrator Selection

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Effective January 3, 2017, the arbitrator selection process administered by FINRA changed to give parties greater choice in arbitrator selection and, by extension, a better likelihood of selecting higher ranked arbitrators.   The number of candidate arbitrators on the "public list" is increased from ten to fifteen and the number of strikes rises to six from four.   FINRA explains more about this update in Regulatory Notice 16-44, available here

Trends in FINRA Arbitration in Massachusetts, Maine, & New Hampshire

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

According to FINRA, arbitration case filings in 2016 (3,681) were about 7 percent ahead of the number of total case filings in 2015 (3,435).  The number of customer disputes, which account for 70% of the total number of disputes filed, is up about 8%.  The number of intra-industry disputes is up about 6%.  FINRA nearly kept pace with this modest bump in filings by closing 4% more cases in 2016 than it had in 2015.  The turnaround time from filing to a standard decision in 2016 was 16.7 months. The turnaround time from filing to simplified decision was less than half that time period, 7 months.  

How many cases were filed in New England states?  According to FINRA:

Augusta, Maine -- 5
Boston, Massachusetts -- 59 
Hartford, Connecticut -- 37
Manchester, New Hampshire -- 7
Montpelier, Vermont -- 3
Providence, Rhode Island -- 8

How many FINRA arbitration decisions were issued in 2016?

Augusta, Maine -- 2
Boston, Massachusetts -- 24
Hartford, Connecticut -- 9
Manchester, New Hampshire -- 5
Montpelier, Vermont -- 1
Providence, Rhode Island -- 7

This compares with hotbeds of FINRA arbitration in San Jan, Puerto Rico (890 case filings), New York City (536 case filings), and Boca Raton, FL (287 case filings).

Statute of Limitations in Maine Arbitration

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

How long is too long to wait before a securities arbitration claim can be asserted?  There's no simple answer.  Many factors go into the mix in fixing deadlines, including (of critical importance) the nature of the claim.  Another factor is whether the claim is subject to arbitration. 

In Maine -- as in many other states -- the generally applicable deadline for filing legal claims (the statute of limitations) does not apply in arbitration.  The default statute of limitations applicable to most Maine civil actions is six years after a cause of action accrues.  14 M.R.S. §752 (“All civil actions shall be commenced within 6 years after the cause of action accrues and not afterwards … except as otherwise specifically provided.”).  Under Maine law, however, the statute of limitations does not apply to arbitration because arbitration is not an action an action at law.  Lewiston Firefighters Assoc. v. Lewiston, 354 A.2d 154, 167 (Me. 1976) (“Arbitration is not an action at law and the statute is not, therefore, an automatic bar to . . . recovery.”).  

But under Maine law a claimant cannot wait forever to assert a claim.  Arbitrators may consider the equitable affirmative defense of laches, whether a claimant has waited “an unreasonable length of time” and thereby induced the other party to rely “in good faith on the other party’s non-action” and “change his position” accordingly.  Id. at 168.  A laches defense is equitable in nature and “addressed to the [arbitration panel’s] conscience.”  Id.  Its touchstone is “fairness” under the “particular factual circumstances” of a claim.  Id.  Because laches is an affirmative defense, the defendant bears the burden of proof to show that it applies.    In customer disputes it is almost always necessary for a panel to allow a claimant to present his or her proof at a final hearing before determining whether a claim is timely (in whole or part) or whether an award should be reduced for some reason due to the passage of time.