Investors often look to professionals to help them navigate the markets and provide a certain level of service, but there are times when they may feel that an account is being mishandled. As tempting as it may be to find someone to blame for monetary losses, they are often the result of market conditions and investors must be prepared for such risks. However, arbitration or other avenues may be warranted if evidence suggests that a broker recommended an unsuitable investment, committed fraud, or charged excessive commissions by "churning" the account. In this article, we'll help you to decide whether your account has been mishandled and if you do need to act on the complaint. (To learn more, see Paying Your Investment Advisor - Fees Or Commissions?)

Your First Steps
If you feel that your broker has not acted in your best interest, try to exhaust all possible remedies with the investment company. After quantifying the loss, schedule a meeting with the primary contact at the investment firm to have an extensive discussion, and listen to the broker's side of the story. If this process does not yield adequate information, escalate the complaint to the next level of management until some type of resolution is reached. This may include various outcomes, including simply waiting for the markets to improve to ending all discussions and proceeding with legal action.

If the dispute is with a broker, you probably already agreed to settle through arbitration when you began working with the firm. In this case, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), formerly the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD), would handle the arbitration process from start to finish. The group's dispute resolution forum helps resolve matters between investors and securities firms, as well as industry-related issues between individual registered representatives and their firms. (To learn more, see Broker Gone Bad? What To Do If You Have A Complaint and When A Dispute With Your Broker Calls For Arbitration.)

If You Need Legal Representation
As with any potentially lucrative legal proceeding, many legal advisors offer free consultations. Consulting an attorney opens up an outside perspective and can help confirm the appropriate forum for resolving a dispute. This is a good time to begin building a short list of potential litigators, should the need arise. If an arbitration path is appropriate, the list will shrink, as more attorneys handle court cases than arbitration.

While the entire process is simplified in order for any one who has a grievance to file a claim and proceed, the majority of customers pursue their claims in conjunction with a legal team that includes at least one attorney and an expert witness. It is also a good time to set reasonable expectations with potential outcomes and time frames. Do not count on large settlements that include punitive damages, as such generous judgments are rarely rendered. Be prepared to wait months or even years before the arbitration date is set. Depending on the size of the claim and the legal participants, anticipate that arbitration that is not completed in the originally scheduled time frame may be postponed to accommodate participant and panel members' schedules.

The Arbitration Process
The table below presents the number of cases handled by FINRA on an annual basis. Typically, the caseload increases in years following volatile financial markets where investors have suffered losses. Caseloads hit historically high levels in 2003, approximately two years after what the tech bubble burst and the stock market plunged.

Year Cases
2002 7,704
2003 8,945
2004 8,201
2005 6,074
2006 4,614
2007 3,238

If arbitration appears to be the best course of action, visit the FINRA website and search pending cases with the investment firm or registered representative in question. The listing will provide a summary and itemization of any pending or closed cases against the firm and its representative or advisor. It will not, however, include every issue or any cases that expunged the record as part of the settlement.

If the search is for a registered investment advisor (RIA) rather than someone who works for a brokerage firm, you will be redirected to the Securities And Exchange Commission (SEC) website, or possibly to a state-sponsored site if the advisor is state licensed. If the search is for a registered representative or a brokerage firm, FINRA's BrokerCheck program will search data from the Central Registration Depository (CRD) registration and licensing database, which gathers data reported on industry registration and licensing forms. BrokerCheck reports professional background information on currently registered brokers, registered securities firms and previously registered parties. One section provides vital information regarding events reported at the CRD, which is required by the securities industry registration and licensing process. Any number of financial disclosures can be listed here, including bankruptcies or unpaid liens. The listing might also contain formal investigations, customer disputes, disciplinary actions and criminal charges or convictions.

Filing a Complaint
If you determine that the portfolio was mishandled, the next step is to file a complaint. FINRA suggests doing so as soon as possible to avoid a delay in arbitration or mediation. Mediation, which can serve as a supplement or replacement for arbitration depending on the outcome, is a voluntary process in which both parties can settle their disputes in a non-binding format. For most claims under $25,000, the process is resolved primarily through written statements filed by each party to FINRA. At any point the claimant, respondent, or arbitrator may request a hearing. These smaller cases can be assigned to a single arbitrator and may settle fairly quickly.

Claim amounts greater than $25,000 are usually assigned to a three-person arbitration panel. Because they typically settle in-person and involve more formalities, they tend to take longer. FINRA offers a complete online claim filing process, and this is where most investors get bogged down. While FINRA has streamlined the process for the layman to follow, it is still a legal proceeding with required documents such as the "statement of claim". Many frustrated investors will pursue the services of an attorney at this point.

Evaluate Your Progress
This stage of the process is a good time to step back, evaluate your progress, and set time frames and expectations. Keep in mind, however, that the relationship between you and the representative or advisor has changed. While customers sometimes stay with the company against which they have filed claims, most do not. Depending on the claim or loss, they have probably moved to another firm, liquidated their holdings or made other arrangements. The process from this point on becomes a legal proceeding, although it is slightly less formal than a typical court proceeding; you should view this process as a resolution-in-progress.

FINRA provides a framework for licensing, registration, education, monitoring and policing of the brokerage community to ensure the public receives the best service. While the vast majority of financial service professionals provide excellent service, some accounts are mishandled and FINRA has the process available for anyone to pursue what he or she believes is a valid claim. It is important to remember that all decisions made by either the sole arbitrator or the combined panel are binding and that the judgments are enforceable, as they would be in a court. Finally, consider that while the investor has every right to pursue a claim, doing so carries costs such as filing fees, arbitration and/or mediation fees, and if the panel decides a case is frivolous, legal and other costs will apply.

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