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

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.

The Bottom Line

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.

Related Articles
  1. Investing

    3 Healthy Financial Habits for 2016

    ”Winning” investors don't just set it and forget it. They consistently take steps to adapt their investment plan in the face of changing markets.
  2. Your Clients

    How to Construct an Annual Review for Clients

    One of the best things that advisors can provide to clients is an annual review of their financial situation. Here are some guidelines.
  3. Investing News

    What Does the Fire Monkey Mean for Your Portfolio?

    The Chinese new year this year corresponds to the monkey, a quick-witted, playful, tricky figure that means well but has a penchant for causing trouble.
  4. Investing Basics

    5 Questions First Time Investors Should Ask in 2016

    Learn five of the most important questions you need to ask if you are a new investor planning on starting an investment program in 2016.
  5. Your Practice

    Advisors: $240B in Fees Up for Grabs by 2030

    Advisors have an opportunity to win generational assets over the next 15 years. Here are some tips on how to cater to different demographics.
  6. Products and Investments

    A Guide to DIY Portfolio Management

    These are some of the pillars needed to build a DIY portfolio.
  7. Your Practice

    Top Insights Into Winning More Wealthy Clients

    The upcoming young and wealthy client class is like none other when it comes to wealth advising preferences. Here are some hints to what these folks want.
  8. Investing Basics

    Choosing the Right Financial Advisor

    The right financial advisor for one person may not be right for another.
  9. Savings

    Banks: Brick-and-Mortar or eBank?

    Brick-and-mortar banks and ebanks usually offer the same services, but there are differences between the two.
  10. Your Clients

    New Year's Resolutions: How to Help Clients Adhere

    Clients setting new resolutions is one thing, but it can be hard to achieve financial goals for some people. Here's how advisors can help.
RELATED FAQS
  1. Are hedge funds regulated by FINRA?

    Alternative investment vehicles such as hedge funds offer investors a wider range of possibilities due to certain exceptions ... Read Full Answer >>
  2. Do financial advisors charge VATs?

    The Personal Finance Society (PFS) and with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) have outlined when a value-added tax ... Read Full Answer >>
  3. Do Sallie Mae loans go directly to your school?

    Sallie Mae is the biggest provider of financial aid and student loans in the United States. The company operates as a private ... Read Full Answer >>
  4. How do financial advisors help you avoid escheatment?

    Financial advisors can help you avoid the escheatment of your financial assets by regularly reviewing all of your accounts, ... Read Full Answer >>
  5. What are working capital costs?

    Working capital costs (WCC) refer to the costs of maintaining daily operations at an organization. These costs take into ... Read Full Answer >>
  6. Are variable annuities safe?

    As of October 2015, many life insurance companies, and those companies that sell variable annuities, have experienced economic ... Read Full Answer >>
Hot Definitions
  1. Liquidation Margin

    Liquidation margin refers to the value of all of the equity positions in a margin account. If an investor or trader holds ...
  2. Black Swan

    An event or occurrence that deviates beyond what is normally expected of a situation and that would be extremely difficult ...
  3. Inverted Yield Curve

    An interest rate environment in which long-term debt instruments have a lower yield than short-term debt instruments of the ...
  4. Socially Responsible Investment - SRI

    An investment that is considered socially responsible because of the nature of the business the company conducts. Common ...
  5. Presidential Election Cycle (Theory)

    A theory developed by Yale Hirsch that states that U.S. stock markets are weakest in the year following the election of a ...
Trading Center