Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Ordered to Pay $1M FINRA Fine for Not Arbitrating Employee Disputes Over Retention Bonuses

FINRA says that Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith must pay a $1M fine because it didn’t arbitrate employee disputes about retention bonuses. Registered representatives that took part in the bonus plan had signed promissory notes stating that should such disagreements arise, they would go to New York state court and not through arbitration to resolve them. FINRA says this agreement violated its rules, which requires that financial firms and associated individuals go through arbitration if the disagreement is a result of the business activities of the associated person or the firm.

It was after merging with Bank of America that Merrill Lynch set up a bonus plan to keep high-producing registered reps. The financial firm gave over 5,000 registered representatives $2.8B in retention bonuses that were structured as loans in 2009. By agreeing that they would go to state court, the representatives were greatly hindering their ability to make counterclaims. FINRA also says that because Merrill Lynch designed the bonus program so that it would seem as if the money for it came from MLIFI, which is a non-registered affiliate, the financial firm was able to go after recovery amounts on MLIFI’s behalf in court, which allowed Merrill Lynch to circumvent the arbitration requirement. After a number of registered representatives did leave the financial firm without paying back the amounts due on the promissory notes in 2009, Merrill Lynch filed more than 90 actions in state court to collect these payments.

Since September 14, 2009, FINRA has been expediting cases involving claims made by brokerage firm over associated persons accused of not paying money owed on a promissory note. Such disputes are supposed to be resolved through arbitration.

The SRO has also been known to get involved in other types of financial firm-employee disputes. For example, in another recent FINRA proceeding, an arbitration panel ordered Citigroup to pay a former investment advisor team and their administrator $24M for not fairly compensating them for transactions involving an institutional client that they brought with them when they moved from Banc of America Securities. Robert Vincent Minchello, his brother James Bryan Minchello, and Martha Jane Sullivan claimed that Citigroup only partially compensated them for a few of the transactions before cutting them out of that business relationship.

Merrill fined $1 mln for failure to arbitrate, Reuters, January 25, 2012

SEC Approves Rule Establishing Expedited Procedures for Arbitrating Promissory Note Cases, FINRA, September 14, 2009


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Securities Claims Accusing Merrill Lynch of Concealing Its Auction-Rate Securities Practices Are Dismissed by Appeals Court, Stockbroker Fraud Blog, November 30, 2011

Merrill Lynch Faces $1M FINRA Fine Over Texas Ponzi Scam by Former Registered Representative, Stockbroker Fraud Blog, October 10, 2011

Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch Settles for $315 million Class Action Lawsuit Over Mortgage-Backed Securities, Institutional Investor Securities Blog, December 6, 2011

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