At the close of the hearing, Claimant requested $1,524,176.00 in compensatory damages.
SIDE BAR: I'm not quite sure what to make of the Decision's reference to the singular "Claimant." Either one of the Claimants had reduced his/her request for compensatory damages to $1,524,176, or, in the alternative, the Decision has a typo in which "Claimant" should have been published as "Claimants."
[C]laimants also requested that upon conclusion of the hearing, the Panel issue an opinion providing the reasons for its award.In the Statement of Answer, The Stifel Respondents requested that Claimants' Statement of Claim be denied with prejudice and that the cost of the arbitration be assessed against Claimants. The Stifel Respondents objected to Claimants' request for an explained decision
SIDE BAR: FINRA Code of Arbitration Procedure for Customer Disputes Rule 12904: Awards [Ed: highlighting added]:(a) All awards shall be in writing and signed by a majority of the arbitrators or as required by applicable law. Such awards may be entered as a judgment in any court of competent jurisdiction.(b) Unless the applicable law directs otherwise, all awards rendered under the Code are final and are not subject to review or appeal.(c) The Director will serve the award on each party, or the representative of the party.(d) The panel shall endeavor to render an award within 30 business days from the date the record is closed.(e) The award shall contain the following:
(1) The names of the parties;(2) The name of the parties' representatives, if any;(3) An acknowledgement by the arbitrators that they have each read the pleadings and other materials filed by the parties;(4) A summary of the issues, including the type(s) of any security or product, in controversy;(5) The damages and other relief requested;(6) The damages and other relief awarded;(7) A statement of any other issues resolved;(8) The allocation of forum fees and any other fees allocable by the panel;(9) The names of the arbitrators;(10) The dates the claim was filed and the award rendered;(11) The number and dates of hearing sessions;(12) The location of the hearings; and(13) The signatures of the arbitrators.
(f) The award may contain a rationale underlying the award.(g) Explained Decisions
(1) This paragraph (g) applies only when all parties jointly request an explained decision.(2) An explained decision is a fact-based award stating the general reason(s) for the arbitrators' decision. Inclusion of legal authorities and damage calculations is not required.(3) Parties must make any request for an explained decision no later than the time for the prehearing exchange of documents and witness lists under Rule 12514(d).(4) The chairperson of the panel will be responsible for writing the explained decision.(5) The chairperson will receive an additional honorarium of $400 for writing the explained decision, as required by this paragraph (g).(6) This paragraph (g) will not apply to simplified cases decided without a hearing under Rule 12800 or to default cases conducted under Rule 12801.
(h) All awards shall be made publicly available.(i) Fees and assessments imposed by the arbitrators under the Code shall be paid immediately upon the receipt of the award by the parties. Payment of such fees shall not be deemed ratification of the award by the parties.(j) All monetary awards shall be paid within 30 days of receipt unless a motion to vacate has been filed with a court of competent jurisdiction. Absent specification to the contrary in the award, when arbitrators order opposing parties to make payments to one another, the monetary awards shall offset, and the party assessed the larger amount shall pay the net difference. An award shall bear interest from the date of the award:
(1) If not paid within 30 days of receipt;(2) If the award is the subject of a motion to vacate which is denied; or(3) As specified by the panel in the award.Interest shall be assessed at the legal rate, if any, then prevailing in the state where the award was rendered, or at a rate set by the arbitrator(s).
1. Respondent Stifel Nicolaus & Co., Inc., is liable for and shall pay to Claimants Michael Stern, Wendy Stern, Paul Levin, and Estate of Gloria Levin, the sum of $1,524,176.00 in compensatory damages.2. Claimants' request for an explained decision is denied.3. Respondent Kenneth David Blumberg's request for expungement of his CRD records is denied.4. Any and all claims for relief not specifically addressed herein, including punitive damages, attorneys' fees and costs, are denied.
Background & DiscussionFINRA is amending its Customer Code and Industry Code to require arbitrators to provide an explained decision at the parties' joint request. The absence of explanations in awards has been a common complaint of non-prevailing parties in FINRA's arbitration forum, especially customers and associated persons. The amendments are intended to address this complaint and increase investor confidence in the fairness of the arbitration process.An explained decision is a fact-based award stating the general reasons for the arbitrators' decision. It does not need to include legal authorities and/or damage calculations. Normally, the arbitrators will be resolving the entire matter; thus, the explained decision will address all the claims asserted by the parties. However, the parties may request that an explained decision address only certain claims.Parties will be required to submit any joint request for an explained decision no later than 20 days prior to the first scheduled hearing date.The chairperson of the arbitration panel will write the explained decision and will receive an additional honorarium of $400. Once the decision is drafted, the other arbitrators will participate in completing the decision as provided in Rules 12904(a) and 13904(a). As with all other awards, the arbitrators will continue to be permitted to concur, concur in part, dissent or dissent in part. The panel may allocate the cost of the honorarium to one party, or may allocate it between or among all parties. Arbitrators will continue to be permitted to decide, on their own, to write an explained decision. If the panel or a member of the panel decides to write an explained decision in the absence of a joint request, FINRA will not pay an additional honorarium to any panel member.Parties will not be able to require explained decisions in simplified arbitrations that are resolved without a hearing or in default proceedings. Explained decisions are not appropriate in either of these situations because of the abbreviated nature of the proceedings.The amendments become effective on April 13, 2009, and will apply to all arbitration cases in which an initial prehearing conference has not been held, or waived by the parties, by the effective date.
The facts in this matter are largely undisputed. Respondents opened brokerage accounts with Petitioner in 2007, under Petitioner's "Horizon Program ." ECF 1-2 at 4. The Horizon Program is a non-discretionary advisory program, meaning that Petitioner could not enter into a transaction absent Respondents' express direction to do so. Id. Kenneth Blumberg ("Blumberg") was the primary financial advisor assigned to Respondents' accounts. Id. From 2011 through mid-2015, Respondents' accounts experienced significant gains in value. As of June, 2015, the Sterns' accounts had increased by approximately $1,252,015 since 2011, to a total value of $1,552,784. Id. at 4-5. Similarly, the Levins' accounts increased by approximately $1,435,585 over the same time period, to a total value of $1,788,609. Id. at 5. Respondents transferred their accounts away from Petitioner's management in or about June, 2016. Id. Although the value of their accounts had decreased from the peak in 2015, Respondents still left with a combined gain of $1,593,680. Id.
On December 11, 2019, FINRA "re-served" the award with a somewhat modified letter. ECF 38-10. Whereas the October letter included signatures from only two arbitrators, the December letter included signatures from all three arbitrators, along with a dissent from arbitrator Edward Gutman. See id. Nonetheless, FINRA explained that service of the December letter did "not modify any of the information and applicable due dates referenced in FINRA's October 3, 2019 letter." Id. at 2. Petitioner filed its Motion to Vacate the award in this Court on January 2, 2020. ECF 1.
This Complaint alleged Respondent Blumberg et al "violated their fiduciary duties and defrauded Claimants by purchasing excessive and unsuitable investments in their accounts by deceiving Claimants by misrepresenting and/or omitting material facts concerning their accounts and the transactions executed in them. These actions were taken with knowledge, evil motive, ill will and fraudulent intent necessary."These accusation were based on the principle brokers who concentrate their client's investments in a few thinly traded holdings of one asset class and in one or two industries, as Respondents clearly did in this case, subject their clients to "catastrophic losses and thus, the broker to liability."A 5-day hearing was conducted to show Respondents purchased excessive and unsuitable investments in Claimants' accounts. violated their fiduciary duties, and defrauded Claimants by purchasing excessive and unsuitable investments in their accounts concentrated in individual technology and biotech/healthcare securities, in the biotech/healthcare and technology sectors; deceiving Claimants by misrepresenting and/or omitting material facts concerning their accounts and the transactions executed in them, taken with "knowledge, evil motive, ill will and fraudulent intent necessary."Yet, the majority panel decision found no finding on these allegations or financial losses attributed to these claims. Rather, the financial recovery to Claimant was based solely upon a violation of Restatement Second Section 209 "if the trustee fails to sell trust property which is his duty to sell (because, e.g., the trust so directs or diversification so required, )the beneficiary can charge him with the amount he would have received by timely sale.The majority of the panel (Catherine Bocskor and John Coker) found the evidence showed a Complainant (Stern) had directed Respondent Blumberg to sell one of the holdings in his portfolio and he did not in violation of his duty to sell under Restatement Second Section 209, and awarded Complainants damages based on the difference in value between the value at the time of the "order" to sell and the value at the time of sale. They made no finding nor was there evidence of "catastrophic losses" for which the broker was liable.Rather, the 5-day hearing resulted in a decision and award of damages based solely on a finding that Blumberg failed to sell a portfolio holding upon the investor's order.While the evidence did reveal Complainant, Stern conferred with Blumberg about selling one of the holdings in his portfolio, that Blumberg counseled against selling referencing Warren Buffet's investment philosophy; yet the evidence failed to produce evidence Stern "ordered or directed" Blumberg to sell.That the evidence Blumberg did not refuse to sell upon an order to sell, and the majority's conclusion may have been defective, may be validated by the evidence of what happened or didn't happen next. True, Blumberg didn't sell but had the customer ordered or directed him to sell as the majority found and he did not sell, there was no explanation why a day later, a week later or at any time had there been no sale. Stern would have not called him and questioned why a sale had not been consummated or reiterated an order to sell. So, while the Restatement may be clear as to a broker's duty, the facts must show a violation and they did not.In addition, I found no basis in law or fact that Complainants whose claim is based on "unsuitability" is entitled to what the majority described as "lost profits" from an "unsuitable over concentrated investment portfolio," especially inconsistent with their recurring claims Blumberg subjected them to "catastrophic" losses, "astronomical risk,"Yet, while the Complaint alleged unsuitability, the portfolio earned as profit. Thus, the majority opinion was not based on placing the Complainants in an unsuitable portfolio as alleged, rather, it was the broker's failure to sell the alleged "unsuitable" portfolio at its highest point of profit. A finding unsupported by the evidence produced in a 5 days hearing. . . .
Petitioner filed a Complaint and Petition to Vacate an award issued by a FINRA arbitration panel. ECF 1. On March 31, 2020, this Court issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order denying Defendants' Motion to Dismiss the Petition. See ECF 41, ECF 42. As a result, Respondents opposed the Motion to Vacate, ECF 43, and Petitioner filed a Reply in further support of the Motion, ECF 44.
As the parties are well aware, judicial review of arbitration awards "is among the narrowest known at law because to allow full scrutiny of such awards would frustrate the purpose of having arbitration at all." Apex Plumbing Supply, Inc. v. U.S. Supply Co., 142 F.3d 188, 193 (4th Cir. 1998). Permissible grounds for vacating an award "include those circumstances where an award fails to draw its essence from the contract, or the award evidences a manifest disregard of the law." Patten v. Signatore Ins. Agency, Inc., 441 F.3d 230, 234 (4th Cir. 2006).However, "when the arbitrators do not give their reasons, it is nearly impossible for the court to determine whether they acted in disregard of the law." O.R. Sec., Inc. v. Prof'l Planning Ass'n, Inc., 857 F.2d 742, 747 (11th Cir. 1988). Here, because the panel did not provide an "explained decision" for its arbitration award, the Court does not currently have a viable method to conduct even a limited review of the merits of the decision.In these circumstances, courts have, at times, remanded a matter to the arbitration panel, seeking further explanation for its decision. See, e.g., Interactive Brokers, LLC v. Saroop, 279 F. Supp. 3d 699 (E.D. Va. 2017) (declining to rule on a motion to vacate in order to remand to arbitration panel for clarification of award); see also Cannelton Indus., Inc. v. Dist. 17, Un. Mine Workers of Am., 951 F.2d 591, 594 (4th Cir. 1991).Accordingly, the Court requests that each party file a supplement stating its position on whether remand to the arbitration panel would be appropriate in these circumstances. The supplement should be filed on or before August 7, 2020.
[P]etitioner contends that the Concurring Arbitrators wrongly applied Maryland Trust Law and Restatement § 209. ECF 1-2 at 9. However, Petitioner has not directed this Court to where the panel explicitly based its award on either of those sources. Instead, Petitioner relies on the characterization of the majority's decision by arbitrator Edward Gutman in his dissenting opinion. This Court will not defer to the views expressed by a dissenting arbitrator in an opinion submitted months after the panel's actual decision. Accepting the dissenting arbitrator's view of the majority's reasoning would be particularly inequitable in these circumstances. Under FINRA rules, Petitioner could have requested an "explained decision" from the panel, but did not do so. In fact, despite Petitioner's decision to forego receiving the panel's rationale, Respondents requested an explained decision, though it was denied. This Court finds it inappropriate to reward Petitioner for its choice - either by deferring to Mr. Gutman's dissent, or by remanding to the arbitration panel for additional explanation.
[T]he arbitration panel held a hearing and, because neither side requested an explained decision, the award consisted of just a few sentences. Id. (awarding damages to the Claimants). Interactive, much like Petitioner here, moved to vacate the arbitration decision in federal court, and the Claimants sought to confirm it. Id. at *4.Pertinent here, rather than granting either the Motion to Confirm or the Motion to Vacate, United States District Judge Robert E. Payne initially remanded the matter back to the arbitration panel for explanation. While recognizing "the extreme deference owed to arbitrators' decisions," id. at *4, the Court, nevertheless, found several parts of the arbitration award confounding. For example, the Court "could not concoct a scenario where the amount of compensatory damages awarded in this case makes sense." Id. at *5. Additionally, although the decision stated that "any and all claims for relief not specifically addressed. . . are denied," the award was not clear about which claims had been "specifically addressed." Id. Accordingly, Judge Payne found that it would be improper to "rubber stamp" a decision that he could not understand. Id.
[T]he Fourth Circuit reiterated the highly deferential standard of review in the context of reviewing an arbitration decision:A more searching review would "render informal arbitration merely a prelude to a more cumbersome and time-consuming judicial review process" and bring arbitration theory to grief. . . "When parties consent to arbitration, and thereby consent to extremely limited appellate review, they assume the risk that the arbitrator may interpret the law in a way with which they disagree."Id. at *3.The Court addressed each purported error that Judge Payne found in the arbitration panel's decisions, and found that none of them constituted manifest disregard of the law. In this case, Petitioner has not even met its burden to show that the applicable law is "clearly defined and not subject to reasonable debate." Id. (quoting Jones v. Dancel, 792 F.3d 395, 402 (4th Cir. 2015)). Certainly, Petitioner cannot show that the arbitrators understood a particular legal principle and refused to apply it. In terms of the arbitration proceedings, the parties got what they bargained for. The arbitration panel considered the parties' pleadings, as well as the evidence and expert testimony presented at the hearing. The panel found that Petitioner was liable, and awarded damages in an amount that is completely consistent with Respondents' claims, without elucidating their rationale in an explained decision. As a reviewing court, I must assess "only whether the arbitrator did his job-not whether he did it well, correctly, or reasonably, but simply whether he did it." Wachovia Securities, 671 F.3d at 478. Petitioner has not met his "heavy burden," Patten, 441 F.3d at 235, to show that the award should be vacated.
Under FINRA rules, Petitioner could have requested an "explained decision" from the panel, but did not do so. In fact, despite Petitioner's decision to forego receiving the panel's rationale, Respondents requested an explained decision, though it was denied. This Court finds it inappropriate to reward Petitioner for its choice - either by deferring to Mr. Gutman's dissent, or by remanding to the arbitration panel for additional explanation.