At pages 2 - 3 of the May 2020 DNJ OpinionPursuant to his contract, Wells Fargo Advisors agreed to provide Petitioner with a "Transitional Bonus" of $1,202,294.00, paid in installments of $12,883.50 once a month from 2011 to 2021. In addition, sometime during his tenure at Wells Fargo Advisors, Petitioner qualified to receive four separate "Production Bonuses" of $240,459.00, because his "total gross production" exceeded specific benchmarks set forth in his contract. Like the transitional bonus, the production bonuses were paid in installments, once a month over the course of a specified period.Petitioner elected to execute five separate loan agreements (the "Notes") that allowed him to receive each bonus upfront, in a lump sum amount. Under their terms, Petitioner agreed to reimburse Wells Fargo Advisors for the Notes, which each set forth a schedule of debt obligations; the debt obligations were matched each month by the transitional and production bonus installments that Petitioner received. The Notes also contained acceleration provisions triggered upon an event of default, including termination. In such instances, Wells Fargo Advisors was entitled under the Notes to "declare the entire principal balance of [each] Note immediately due and payable."During Petitioner's tenure at the firm, Wells Fargo Advisors conducted an internal investigation into Petitioner's business practices, which resulted in his discharge on December 2014. Thereafter, on August 4, 2015, Wells Fargo Advisors commenced an arbitration proceeding against Petitioner with FINRA, in order to recoup the outstanding principal owed on the Notes, along with interest, costs, and fees. Petitioner counter-claimed against Wells Fargo Advisors, alleging numerous causes of action, including: breach of contract, unconscionability based on fraudulent inducement, unjust enrichment, breach of the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing, defamation, fraudulent inducement to accept employment, expungement, and employment law breach.In resolving the parties' dispute, a FINRA arbitration panel of three members (the "Panel") held over 22 separate hearings that spanned from December 10, 2018 to June 21, 2019, during the course of which more than 13 witnesses testified. . . .
SIDE BAR: Omigod -- could Wells Fargo have conjured up a more complex and absurd bonus scheme? Let's make sure that we're all the same page with what's what.The May 2020 DNJ Opinion states alleges that Wells Fargo paid to Caputo a $1,202,294.00 "Transitional Bonus," which was to be paid in monthly installments of $12,883.50 from 2011 to 2021. Okay, let's have some fun with math. Multiply $12,883.50 times 12. That should give you $154,602 per annum. Now . . . go ahead . . . explain to me how the monthly installment works out to $1,202,294 if paid for the ten years from 2011 to 2021. Let's see $154,602 times 10 equals $1,546,020 -- so that's wrong. Let's try it in reverse: $1,202,294 divided by 10 equals $120,229.40 and dividing that by 12 would give us a monthly installment of $10,019.12 -- so that's wrong too. I'm wondering if the Court bothered to check the math! If there's some other explanation for the mathematical discrepancy, it sure as hell isn't explained in the Opinion.In addition to the somewhat incalculable "Transitional Bonus," Caputo also earned four separate "Production Bonuses" of $240,459.00, which we're told were paid monthly over what is only characterized as a "specific period of time." Gee, that's nice that payments were made over some specific period of time -- I mean, you know, like who the hell wants to get paid over a non-specific period of time, right?Now things get a bit more fuzzy. The May 2020 DNJ Opinion states that Caputo "elected to execute five separate loan agreements (the "Notes") that allowed him to receive each bonus upfront, in a lump sum amount." As best I can infer from the fact pattern, that would be one Note for the ten-year transitional bonus and four Notes (one each) for the four production bonuses. If you have a better idea how to make all those bonuses fit into five Notes, I'm all ears.So waddawegot here? Frankly, a mess, and, even more to the point: A mess that always seems the careful result of a cynical desire by Wall Street's larger firms to complicate these "bonus" transactions so that they look like a bonus but then, on second viewing, they magically transform into a "loan." When push comes to shove, it comes off as a calculated bit of legerdemain designed to bind the financial professional to the firm. Yes, quite often both parties are happy with this messy arrangement until, well, you know, until they're not. On the other hand, many consumer advocates detest these bonus/loan arrangements because the negative financial consequence of refusing to sell a toxic product may arise if the financial professionals chooses to quit rather than do something in violation of fiduciary principles or a customer's best interest. Wall Street has cleverly created a compensation package whereby quitting will trigger a repayment obligation per an acceleration provision. Again, that's not an atypical arrangement but it does raise some ethical issues when the consequence of doing the right thing may be analyzed by a financial professional as not being the right thing to do.
[U]nder the terms of his contract, Petitioner maintains that he received bonus installments that offset his obligations under the loans each month, contingent upon his continued tenure with Wells Fargo Advisors. Id. However, in the event of his resignation or discharge from Wells Fargo Advisors, Petitioner argues that an unenforceable contractual forfeiture provision stated that he would "forfeit . . . unpaid installments . . . due under [h]is [b]onus[es]." Id. At that same time, according to Petitioner, the outstanding balance under all of his loans "become due in full out of pocket." Id. Citing various labor laws, Petitioner argues that the contract's forfeiture provision, in essence, deprived him of "wages" that he "earned," based on his performance at Wells Fargo Advisors. Moreover, according to Petitioner, Wells Fargo Advisors prevented him from working off his loan "obligation[s]," because he was discharged without cause.
nothing more than a knowing and willing private contractual relationship between himself and Wells Fargo Advisors. Thus, because the parties' dispute, here, is contractual in nature, Petitioner cannot seek to vacate the Award unless he demonstrates that the "arbitrators exceeded their powers" under § 10(a)(4) of the FAA, based on their decision to enforce the Notes as independent and valid loan agreements. . . .
Here, it is undisputed that Petitioner was eligible to receive five separate bonuses during his tenure at Wells Fargo Advisors, including one "transitional" and four "production" bonuses. Pursuant to the terms of his employment contract, the bonuses were structured such that Petitioner would acquire them over time, paid once a month in separate installments during the course of a specified period. However, because Petitioner elected to receive the future bonus installments upfront in an immediate lump sum, he executed five separate Notes in amounts equaling each of his bonuses. Notwithstanding the five separate Notes that the parties executed, Wells Fargo Advisors continued to provide Petitioner with transitional and production bonus installments each month, which "offset" Petitioner's monthly debt obligations under the Notes.Petitioner argues that the Notes do not constitute bona fide loan agreements. Citing out-of-district bankruptcy court cases, Petitioner contends that "[e]ach note should . . . be considered together with the bonus agreement on which the note is predicated." Petr.'s Opp., at 17. Construing these documents in tandem, according to Petitioner, "the supposed loans were not intended . . . to be repaid, but instead . . . forgiven over the course of the 'borrowers' continued employment." Petr.'s Opp., at 18. In support, Petitioner emphasizes that his bonus installments were paid each month, in amounts that matched the obligations which came due under the Notes. Petr.'s Opp., at 9. The "economic effect" of these transactions, Petitioner avers, equates to a "periodic and scheduled forgiveness of [his] outstanding debt." Petr.'s Opp., at 17. Thus, Petitioner contends that the Panel erred in enforcing the Notes and entering an Award against him.
Wells Fargo Advisors encouraged the Panel to resolve the parties' dispute based on "industry practice," instead of the applicable law. Petr.'s Opp., at 33. During the hearings, Petitioner also maintains that Wells Fargo Advisors "emphasized that it could discharge [Petitioner] at will," and claimed that a reviewing court was "not entitled to . . . substitute its judgment for that of the arbitral panel, no matter how wrong it may believe the panel's decision to be." Id. Citing Montes v. Shearson Lehman Bros., 128 F.3d 1456, 1464 (11th Cir. 1997), Petitioner contends that the representations that Wells Fargo Advisors advanced during the proceedings, in conjunction with the Award which it received, "raise an inference that the law was ignored." . . .
[P]etitioner challenges the Court's findings and argues that his bonuses do, in fact, fall within the scope of state wage labor statutes as covered "sales commissions." Petitioner's Motion, at 1. For this reason, Petitioner contends that the Award deprived him of earned wages, and the Court erred in failing to vacate the arbitrator's decision under a de novo standard of review.
[A]s I explained in the prior opinion, Petitioner was not eligible to receive a bonus award, without having first satisfied two contractual conditions. In particular, under the terms of his contract, Petitioner had to exceed certain performance-based benchmarks. In addition, and in contrast to the cases that he relies upon in seeking reconsideration, Petitioner was required to retain his position at WFA for a particular period of time (the "Bonus Period") for his bonus to vest in full. The second condition is set forth in § 5(b) of the agreement and reads:Your receipt of continued payments on your Bonuses is conditioned upon your continued active employment with [WFA] and holding the functional title of Financial Advisor (or the equivalent). In the event your employment terminates for any reason . . . or if you no longer hold the functional title of Financial Advisor (or the equivalent), then you will no longer be eligible to receive any further payments on any Bonuses and you will forfeit any unpaid installments or other amounts due under the Bonuses.Agreement, § 5(b).The five bonuses that Petitioner qualified for were structured so that he would receive them on a periodic basis. Indeed, the bonuses were paid in separate installments on a once-a-month basis over the course of a specific timeframe, and the continued receipt of those installments was subject to § 5(b) of Petitioner's contract. However, as explained above, Petitioner chose to execute five loan agreements (the "Notes") that equaled each of his incentive-based bonus awards. Therefore, in practical effect, the Notes served as "compensation advances" which allowed Petitioner to obtain future installments-to which he was otherwise not entitled- in the form of an upfront immediate lump sum. . . .
[T]he arbitration award that was entered against Petitioner did nothing more than require him to return the unvested portion of his bonuses that he would not have otherwise acquired but for the execution of the Notes. Thus, the Award neither deprives nor requires Petitioner to forfeit earned wages, and its enforcement does not violate public policies under state labor laws, as I held in the prior opinion.Moreover, Petitioner's position that § 5(b) operates as an illegal forfeiture under the NJWL has no merit. Indeed, courts in this district have enforced bargained for provisions that require workers to remain with a firm for a specific duration before a bonus accrues. . . .
Footnote 3: Caputo simultaneously moved for a stay of the District Court's judgment before the District Court, which the District Court denied. He then filed the same motion before this Court, which we also denied on October 29, 2020. That same day, Caputo filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of New Jersey ("Bankruptcy Court"). The Bankruptcy Court ultimately discharged Caputo's debts, including the approximately $1.7 million he owed to Wells Fargo under the District Court judgment, and ordered the bankruptcy case closed.Footnote 4: Wells Fargo asserts that the instant appeal is moot given that Caputo's debt to Wells Fargo pursuant to the District Court's judgment was discharged in bankruptcy. We disagree. Assuming that Caputo could prevail in this appeal, we could fashion "meaningful relief." See In re Surrick, 338 F.3d 224, 230 (3d Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks omitted). A reversal of the District Court's decision and (eventual) vacatur of the arbitration award could result in Caputo receiving the money from his Wells Fargo brokerage accounts, which were placed on administrative hold after Caputo failed to pay Wells Fargo the amount he owed under the Promissory Notes. Thus, Caputo's appeal is not moot.
improperly conflate the manifest disregard and public policy doctrines. Even if these laws articulated some public policy, it would not be "well defined [or] dominant." Caputo identifies no other explicit public policy that the arbitration award violates.Caputo also argues that the arbitration award is contrary to public policy because he was terminated without cause. Yet besides "general considerations of supposed public interests," Caputo does not explain how being fired without cause violates public policy. And it is hard to see how that could be true here, given that Caputo's employment was at-will.
"The manifest disregard standard requires more than legal error." "Rather, the arbitrators' decision must fly in the face of clearly established legal precedent, such as where an arbitrator appreciates the existence of a clearly governing legal principle but decides to ignore or pay no attention to it." It is an "extremely deferential" standard.
Caputo also argues that the award should be vacated for exceeding the arbitrator's authority under § 10(a)(4) on the same basis. Caputo asserts that Wells Fargo invited the arbitration panel to disregard the law and that they did so, as evidenced by the panel restricting Caputo's cross-examination of certain witnesses and granting an arbitration award in favor of Wells Fargo. As the District Court recognized, "[u]nder § 10(a)(4) of the FAA, a court cannot examine the merits of an arbitrator's decision, correct factual or legal errors, or overrule an award based on a mere disagreement with the arbitrator's interpretation of a contract." Simply put, "we must enforce an arbitration award if it is based on an arguable interpretation of" the contract. The terms of an award may not be revised "unless they are completely irrational." As we have explained, "[s]o deferential is the 'irrationality' standard under the FAA that we 'may not overrule an arbitrator simply because [we] disagree . . . . [T]here must be absolutely no support at all in the record justifying the arbitrator's determinations for a court to deny enforcement of an award.'"Even if the FINRA arbitration panel got it wrong, it is hard to see how this would be more than legal error, as required to vacate an arbitration award under the manifest disregard doctrine. Further, despite Caputo's assertions to the contrary, there is no evidence in the record that Wells Fargo urged the FINRA arbitration panel to disregard the law. The arbitrators' decisions to cut off the cross-examination of certain witnesses and rule in favor of Wells Fargo do not support the inference that the FINRA arbitration panel disregarded the law such that they exceeded their authority. Unlike the Supreme Court's decision in Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds International Corp., which Caputo cites in support of his arguments, the FINRA arbitration panel did not impose its own "policy choice" in making its decision. Instead, the arbitral panel "rationally derived" the arbitration award in favor of Wells Fargo "from the agreement between the parties."
We are not convinced that the arbitrators' decision to exclude evidence of Caputo's discharge deprived him of a fair hearing. Given that Caputo was an at-will employee who signed Promissory Notes promising that he would pay Wells Fargo back in full, we are skeptical that excluding the evidence at issue resulted in an unfair hearing.