A Brief History of Securities Arbitration

The US Supreme Court enforced the arbitration clauses that were boilerplate in the account agreements of most stock brokerage firms and sent almost all disputes that a customer may have with their stockbroker or brokerage firm to arbitration in 1987. Shearson/American Express Inc. v. McMahon, 482 U. S. 220 (1987).

The McMahon case did not find its way to the Supreme Court by accident. Some people in the securities industry were looking for a case to walk up the appellate ladder to get the issue of mandatory arbitration before the Court as early as the mid-1970s.

At that time, the industry had been hit by several large punitive damage awards assessed by juries in cases involving customer losses. Many people in the industry wanted nothing to do with juries. Many states did not then permit arbitrators to award punitive damages.

Certainly the industry believed that it could home court customers and their lawyers. To some extent the industry was able to weed out arbitrators who had the audacity to make a large award against a member firm.

The wire houses handled many of the claims with in-house lawyers because as they were self insured. Where there was a separate insurance carrier law firms around the country were enlisted in the industry’s defense. Throughout, defense lawyers have constantly assisted each other and have consistently acted to further their clients and the industry’s interests by shaping the rules and the forum.

I think that the industry would have been happy to keep arbitration simple. Events in the late 1980s and early 1990s conspired against it.

Customers do not file arbitration claims against their stockbrokers unless they lose money. Many customers lost money when the market crashed in 1987. Shortly thereafter, junk bonds began to default. Real estate limited partnerships were failing and a lot of those had been sold to seniors and retirees.

One firm, Prudential Securities, spawned thousands of claims which were resolved individually in arbitration or mediation. Claims against Prudential and other firms selling similar products caused a lot of lawyers from around the country to begin to take on customer disputes.

Up until that point, most claims involved the alleged misconduct of individual representatives such as churning or unsuitable recommendations. Now there were claims involving financial products where every customer who purchased them had been defrauded.

Prudential and the other firms put forward a number of aggressive defenses. The customers’ lawyers began to share information with each other. Eventually some of those lawyers formed the Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association, PIABA. There was now a formal industry of  customer representatives which substantially leveled the playing field.

At that time I would have said that these arbitration claims were easier to defend than to prosecute. The industry always had access to the information, people and documents that it needed to defend the claims. Customers were often limited to those documents that the panel ordered to be produced at the discovery hearing. Basic discovery in arbitration was not simplified and made uniform until 1999.

Tens of thousands of customer claims were resolved in arbitration after losses stemming from the 2001 “tech wreck” and the 2008 “credit meltdown”. The vast majority of the claims settled just like they would have if the claims had been filed in any court.

There have been tweaks to the arbitration rules over time but the basic system is the same. Arbitration still promises a resolution of a customer’s claim in less time and for less money than a resolution of the same claim in most courthouses.

Efficiency has always been a hallmark of arbitration. When I started (in the 1970s) most claims were resolved with a single day of live testimony. The customer and the broker would each tell their story to the panel. Few panels needed experts to explain the rules or the transactions to them.

The issues in these claims are rarely complex. The brokerage industry and the claimants’ lawyers share the blame for adding complexity where none was needed.

FINRA arbitration is far from perfect. I have elsewhere documented that in one case only one FINRA arbitration panel out of 35 thought customers who were sold a particular Ponzi scheme should get their money back. FINRA Arbitration – How investors actually fare.

Some commentators have attributed results like this to arbitrators who are biased or anti-consumer. Some have argued that arbitrators who worked for the industry will not make a substantial award against it. Others have argued that, because it is run by the industry, FINRA arbitration in inherently biased. This has resulted in more neutral panels and panel selection.

Personally, I do not believe that arbitrators should have to be educated by the customers’ attorneys to the fact that selling shares in a Ponzi scheme to any customer is beneath the standards of the industry. There is a difference between an arbitrator who is neutral and one who has no experience with investments or investing.

Unlike many lawyers representing customers who want arbitrators who are neutral, I frequently hope to get a retired branch office manager or compliance professional on the panel. I believe that customers frequently get a better result when the arbitrators are well informed and personally experienced in proper industry practices.

Too many people who comment about the perceived inequities of arbitration fail to consider that there are often legitimate defenses to these claims. Brokerage customers are generally a wealthier and more educated sub-set of the general population. They frequently approve the offending transactions, sign forms that acknowledge that they have read all of the disclosures and receive monthly statements which they are expected to read.

Arbitrators will often apportion the blame for the losses sustained by the customer between the parties. They will frequently consider a customer’s failure to mitigate their losses when assessing damages.

Arbitrators will also consider how the customer would have fared if they had not purchased the offending investments. If the general market was down during the time period of the claim, industry lawyers will frequently assert that the customer would have sustained losses even if they had gone to a different broker who had sold them something else.

The best cure for any perceived ills in the arbitration process will always be loss prevention. It starts with better educated investors but includes better compliance at the firms as well.

FINRA would do well to remember that for all its efforts to make the arbitration process more neutral, FINRA also has an important enforcement function. The greater certainty of the customers’ ability to recover inappropriate losses, the greater the deterrent to the offending conduct.