Andrew Whiteman Assists Securities Law Clinics with Amicus Brief Filing
On April 19, 2019, Andrew Whiteman filed an amicus curiae brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on behalf of three law school law clinics: University of Miami School of Law Investor Rights Clinic, Elizabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University Investor Rights Clinic, and St. Johns University School of Law Securities Arbitration Clinic (the “Clinics”).
An amicus curiae brief, also known as a “friend of the court brief,” is filed in an appellate court by a non-party to the dispute who has an interest in the outcome of the court’s disposition. The Clinics filed their brief in support of the appeal by the plaintiff-appellants, Rohit Saroop, Preya Saroop, and George Sofis (“Plaintiffs”). The Plaintiffs won their FINRA arbitration case. However, the arbitration decision was vacated by a judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The Plaintiffs then appealed the case to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The case involves the following facts. In January 2017, an arbitration panel appointed by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) rendered an arbitration award in favor of Plaintiffs against the defendant, Interactive Brokers LLC (“Interactive”). Interactive filed a motion in the District Court to vacate the arbitration award. The Plaintiffs moved to confirm it. The District Judge remanded the arbitration decision back to the panel of arbitrators for clarification of the basis for their award in favor of the Plaintiffs. After the remand, the panel issued a slightly modified version of their initial award in January 2018, again in favor of the Plaintiffs.
Upon review of the modified award, the District Court granted Interactive’s motion to vacate the award and remanded the arbitration case to a new panel of FINRA arbitrators for reconsideration of Interactive’s counterclaims against the Plaintiffs. The District Judge decided to vacate the award after finding that arbitrators based their award against Interactive solely on the ground that Interactive violated a FINRA conduct rule, Rule 4210. The Court ruled that the arbitrators’ decision constituted “manifest disregard of the law” because the law is clear that there is no private right of action to enforce FINRA conduct rules, the panel knew of and understood the law on this point, they found the law to be applicable to the case, and they ignored it.
The Clinics’ amicus brief makes several points. FINRA’s arbitration rules do not require the claimant to specify any cause of action or legal theory in a statement of claim. FINRA arbitration rules do not require the arbitrators to specify any cause of action or legal theory in an award. Under established legal precedent, the arbitrators did not manifestly disregard the law, and the District Court erred in its finding concerning the arbitrators’ rationale for the award.
This is an important case for several reasons. First and foremost, the judicial power to review of arbitration decisions is extremely limited. Judicial review of arbitration decisions has been described as “severely circumscribed” and “among the narrowest known at law.” Apex Plumbing Supply, Inc. v. U.S. Supply Co., 152 F.3d 188, 193 (4th Cir. 1998). The Fourth Circuit has stated that “a court sits to determine only whether the arbitrator did his job – not whether he did it well, correct, or reasonably, but simply whether he did it.” Wachovia Securities, LLC v. Brand, 671 F.3d 472, 478 (4th Cir. 2012). In this case, the District Court’s finding that the arbitrators’ decision was based solely on a violation of a FINRA rule is highly questionable. The Court’s analysis of the “manifest disregard” standard seems deeply flawed. It rests in part on the premise that the case law is clear that an arbitration award cannot be based on a violation of a FINRA rule. The Court cited numerous cases that have held that a FINRA Rule may constitute evidence of the broker-dealer’s duty of care to his customer, but held that those cases were inapplicable because “it was apparent on the face of the arbitrator’s decision that a violation of FINRA Rule 4210” was the sole basis for liability. Finally, the Court’s ruling that the arbitrators knew the law, understood it, knew the law was controlling, and disregarded it is based on what was in Interactive’s arbitration brief. This finding is problematical because the Plaintiffs’ submission to the panel contested Interactive’s argument and cited contrary authority.
This case provides the Fourth Circuit to provide additional guidance on the scope of judicial review of arbitration decisions.
A copy of the District Court’s opinion is here.
A copy of the Clinics’ amicus brief is here.
It is expected that the Fourth Circuit will rule on the case within six to nine months.
© Andrew Whiteman 2019
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