Articles Posted in Class Action Lawsuits

SEC Names More Brokers in Penny Stock Rigging Case Filed Last Year
The Securities and Exchange Commission is charging three more people related to a $300M penny stock rigging case that it filed last year. In federal court, the regulator sought to lift the stay in its civil case to submit an amended lawsuit and now also name brokers Ronald Heineman and Michael Morris, as well as lawyer Darren Ofsink.

The SEC says that Morris and Heineman executed the scam through their brokerage firm awhile Ofsink made money illegally by selling unregistered shares even though no exemption for registration was valid. Meantime, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York is fling criminal charges against Ofsink ad Morris.

Per the amended SEC complaint, in 2013 Abraxas Discala, Marc Exler, and brokers Craig Josephburg and Matthew Bell were involved in a scam to raise the price of CodeSmart Holdings stock. The men intended to make money at the expense of Josephberg’s customers and Bell’s clients. Heineman and Morris, who own Halcyon Cabot Partners-the firm where Josephberg was employed-allegedly were involved in the securities scam. The two men are accused of secretly consenting to buy shares of CodeSmart at pre-set prices so that Discala could liquidate his positions at prices that were artificially raised. Meantime, Ofsink, who played a part in the execution of the company’s reverse merger into a public shell company, made money by illegally selling securities of CodeSmart that were not registered.

Trading in CodeSmart has been suspended because the company hasn’t submitted periodic reports since late 2014 and due to purportedly suspect market activity.

Former Ameriprise Adviser Gets Prison Term for Defrauding Clients of Over $1M
Former Ameriprise (AMP) adviser Susan Elizabeth Walker wills serve more than seven years behind bars for defrauding at least 24 retirement accounts of over $1.1M. Walker was convicted of tax evasion and mail fraud. She pled guilty last year to the criminal accounts.

Walker offered financial planning services through the firm from October 2008 through March 2013. She also was registered with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority and was a securities agent under the Minnesota Department of Commerce.
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According to the Irving Firemen’s Relief and Retirement Fund, Tesco PLC and its directors misled investors, purportedly causing the Texas pension fund to buy the company’s stock at prices that were artificially inflated. Because of this, says the fund, it sustained substantial losses when Tesco announced in September that it had overstated profits because of accounting irregularities.

The supermarket chain’s shares plunged after it disclosed that certain income was booked prior to being earned and costs were identified after they were incurred. Last month, Tesco said that it had overstated profits by $422 million.

The Irving pension fund wants to get class action status. It wants to represent Tescho shareholders who bought the company’s American depository receipts, representing one ordinary share each, between February 2 and September 22, 2014. In its securities fraud case, the Texas fund contended that Tesco purposely deceived the public.

Fidelity Investments has consented to pay $12 million two settle two class action employee lawsuits. The plaintiffs contend that the retirement plan provider was self-dealing in the FMR LLC Profit Sharing Plan and making money at their expense by offering employees high-cost fund options and making them pay excessive fees.

Over 50,000 ex- and present employees are eligible to receive from the settlement. Fidelity is accused of providing just its own funds in the retirement plan for its workers, with certain investment options having little (if any) track record, while failing to use an impartial process when choosing the investment options.

As part of the agreement, Fidelity will now give employees a choice of non-Fidelity and Fidelity mutual funds, increase auto-enrollment to 7%, and allow participants of non-Fidelity mutual funds to benefit from revenue sharing, just like the participants of Fidelity mutual funds and collective trusts. The company also will keep offering a default investment alternative, the Fidelity Freedom Funds-Class. The Portfolio Advisory Services at Work program will be provided for free.

Ruling in Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund, the U.S. Supreme Court has left the fraud-on-the-market theory intact. However, they may have made it easier for large companies to get the courts to throw out class action securities cases sooner.

Halliburton Co. wanted to block a class action lawsuit accusing the company of inflating its stock price. A number of investors are claiming that they lost money after the stock price fell following news that it misrepresented revenues, overstated a merger’s benefits, and understated its liability in asbestos litigation.

Under the theory, securities fraud lawyers can use stock prices as proof that a company took part in fraud without having to prove that investors depended on company statements (or omissions of statements) when making decisions. Many corporate lawyers had hoped that the court would get rid of the 1988 precedent it made when it ruled in Basic V. Levinson more than 25 years ago. However, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion for the justices that Halliburton didn’t offer any “special justification” for overruling the fraud-on-the-market presumption. (Justice Clarence Thomas, who ruled unanimously with the court, issued a separate opinion and was joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scala. He said that Basic should have been overruled.)

The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear Halliburton v. Erica John Fund. In it, the Texas-based multinational corporation is appealing a class action securities lawsuit that tests the fraud-on-the market theory. That doctrine became part of securities law in 1988 after the highest court’s ruling in Basic v. Levinson.

The fraud-on-the-market theory is premised upon the efficient markets hypothesis, which is that the price of a stock is a reflection of all public data. This makes it possible for plaintiff attorneys to set up a class action for all the buyers of a stock without having to first prove in court that these purchasers depended upon untrue information from the company and that this caused their losses.

Instead, the doctrine assumes that a company’s stock price can reflect corporate assertions even if they are misleading. As a result lawyers are able to submit securities fraud classes while blaming corporate executives for certain changes in the market value of a company’s stock.

In Dallas, Chief Judge Sidney A. Fitzwater of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas has thrown out the class action lawsuit filed by Verizon Communications (VZ) management retirees looking to stop their ex-employer from selling $8.4 billion of their pensions to Prudential Insurance Company of America (NYSE: PRU) . However, Fitzwater said that the plaintiffs can re-plead their case and they have 30 days to do so from June 24. He dismissed their Texas lawsuit per the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act’s Section 404 (a) and noted that Verizon choosing to amend its management pension plan was not a fiduciary function.

Per the ruling, Verizon Communications and Prudential went into an agreement together last year involving the former’s pension plan agreeing to buy the latter’s premium group annuity. This would settle about $7.4 billion in liabilities. Also, Verizon would be handing over to Prudential the responsibility of giving pension benefits to approximately 41,000 retired employees. These transferred retirees are no longer part of the plan, while the about 50,000 beneficiaries and participants not included in the transaction are still part of the plan. The federal court in Texas had certified each group as a transferee class and the other as a non-transferee one, respectively.

According to the transferee class, Verizon didn’t reveal in the summary plan description that the annuity transaction might happen, which violates ERISA, breaches the company’s fiduciary duty, and discriminates against class members. Despite observing that choosing an annuity provider is a function that is a fiduciary one, Judge Fitzwater said that amending a plan is not a fiduciary function. He did say, however, that elements of the way Verizon executed the direct of the amendment might be considered fiduciary functions. (It was Fitzwater who earlier this year gave the 41,000 Verizon management retirees class status after he found that there were too many plaintiffs for them to each have their own lawsuit.)

Ralph Janvey, the Stanford receiver based in Houston, has filed a putative class action lawsuit against Hunton & Williams LLP and Greenberg Traurig LLP, two law firms accused of playing roles that allowed R. Allen Stanford to execute his $7B Ponzi scam. The securities complaint, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, is seeking $1.8 billion in damages and $10 million that it claims Stanford gave to the law firms during their years of working together. The plaintiffs are contending Texas Securities Act violations, aiding and abetting participation in a fraud scam, aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty, and conspiracy.

Also named as a defendant is Yolanda Suarez, who was not only a former Greenberg Traurig associate but also she served as Stanford Financial Group’s general counsel and later as chief of staff. Janvey says that Stanford could not have kept his scam going for over 20 years without these parties’ help.

Per the Texas securities case, Carlos Loumiet, an ex-Greenberg Traurig partner who later went to work for Hunton & Williams (he is now a DLA Piper partner and is not a defendant in this lawsuit), had a “very close personal relationship” with Stanford and played a part in helping the now convicted fraudster run his global scam. This included helping him establish sales and marketing offices in the US. Loumiet and Greenberg Traurig also allegedly helped Stanford set up the transactions that would allow the Ponzi mastermind to use the money he took from Stanford International Bank Ltd. in Antigua and invest them in “speculative venture capital” deals and property in the Caribbean. The law firm is also accused of giving Stanford securities law counsel and advice on a regularly basis.

FINRA has filed a temporary cease-and-desist order barring WR Rice Financial Services Inc. and Joel I. Wilson, its owner, from taking part in allegedly fraudulent sales activities and the conversion of assets or funds. The SRO is also filing a securities complaint accusing both the Michigan based-brokerage firm, Wilson, and other registered representatives of selling over $4.5 million in limited partnership interests to approximately 100 investors while leaving out or misrepresenting material facts.

Per the broker fraud case, the broker-dealer and Wilson got investors to participate by promising them that their funds would be placed in land contracts in Michigan on residential real estate and that the interest rate they would get would be 9.9%. The money was instead allegedly used for unsecured loans to companies under Wilson’s ownership or control.

In other securities news, the SEC’s Division of Investment Management director Norm Champ recently stated that the Commission’s report on retail investors and their financial literacy gives basis for creating a summary prospectus for variable annuities. Speaking via teleconference at the American Law Institute-Continuing Legal Education Group conference on life insurance products on November 1, Champ reported that investors in the study agreed that the mutual fund summary prospectuses were user-friendly. He expressed optimism that a summary prospectus for variable annuities could give significant disclosures and related benefits if designed and implemented well and that the framework used for the mutual fund summary prospectus should prove to be an effective model.

Merrill Lynch (MER) has arrived at an “agreement in principle” to resolve the class action lawsuit filed by John Burnette and Scott Chambers over deferred compensation that they contend that the brokerage firm refused to pay them after it merged with Bank of America (BAC) in 2008 and they left its employ. About 1,400 brokers are part of this class. However, some 3,300 ex-Merrill brokers have submitted deferred compensation claims against the brokerage firm for the same reason.

Merrill had refused to give these employees their deferred compensation, which is what a broker usually gets paid for staying with a financial firm for a specific number of years, when they resigned after the merger. These brokers, however, cited “good reason” for their departure, which is another cause they can claim to receive this.

The class action settlement was presented to U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan at Manhattan federal court on Friday. She will decide whether to approve it, as well as certify the class according to the parties’ definition. However, it is not known at this time how many brokers will go for this settlement if it is approved.

It is not unusual for many to opt not to be part of a class action settlement and instead seek to obtain more money via an individual arbitration claim. Having an arbitration lawyer personally representing your case generally leads to bigger results. Already, over a thousand ex-Merrill brokers have filed their FINRA claims. Also, for an ex-Merrill broker whose deferred compensation was above six figures, they are likely to get much less by going the class action route. Meantime, ex-Merrill brokers with revenues that exceeded $500,000 during a certain timeframe before they left the financial firm cannot participate in a class action settlement. Neither can those that accepted bonuses and waived certain rights related to deferred compensation claims from Merrill after the deal with Bank of America.

That said, even the ex-Merrill brokers that decide to opt out of the class are likely to benefit from this settlement because it establishes a floor for payouts while serving as Merrill’s public acknowledgement that it had a financial duty to pay the former brokers upon their departure.

Under the class action settlement, the majority of advisers would get 40-60% of the value of their account. According to OnWallStreet.com, for a broker to receive 60%, advisors must have already made a request for reimbursement, whether via lawsuit, arbitration, or some other way and left the financial firm prior to January 30, 2010. To be eligible to receive 50%, these advisers too will have had to have made some type of legal action and resigned by June 30, 2010. If no action was taken, and the former broker still wants to opt in, they would turn in a form and seek 40% of compensation–dependent upon when they exited the firm. Other ex-advisors might also be able to receive 40 to 60% of payment depending on when they left Merrill, whether they had filed a deferred compensation claim, and in what compensation plans they were participants. Ex-dvisers that had an agreement with the Advisor Transition Program, however, would not be able to participate.)

Merrill to Make Good on Former Brokers’ Deferred Comp, On Wall Street, August 24, 2012
Merrill to pay $40 mln in deferred compensation suit, Reuters, August 25, 2012

More Blog Posts:
Merrill Lynch to Pay Brokers Over $10M for Alleged Fraud Over Deferred Compensation Plans, Institutional Investor Securities Blog, April 5, 2012

Advanced Equities Ordered by FINRA Arbitration Panel to Pay $4.5M to Ex-Broker, Stockbroker Fraud Blog, June 12, 2012

Claims Continue over MasterShare – Prudential Securities’ Deferred Compensation Plan, Stockbroker Fraud Blog, August 13, 2008 Continue reading

In a reversal of a district court’s decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act does not bar the investor state law class action lawsuit that was filed by victims of R. Allen Stanford’s Ponzi scheme. The case is Roland v. Green.

The appeals court said that the state court securities lawsuits, which are claiming common law and statutory violations, could go forward because the alleged fraud is only tangentially related to the buying and selling of covered securities under SLUSA. Four complaints are on appeal. In each case, investors submitted state court actions that charged a number of defendants with misleading them into using their individual retirement accounts to invest in Stanford International Bank-issued certificate of deposits that have since proved worthless. Investors have lost $7 billion in Stanford’s Ponzi scam.

The defendants had the lawsuits moved to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, which found that SLUSA precluded the claims because of their connection to a covered security. Under SLUSA, state class actions claiming fraud related to the sale or purchase of a covered security are barred. The district court judge in Dallas had dismissed the cases because Stanford marketed the CDs as regulated and securities-backed and because certain investors had sold securities to finance their purchase of the CDs, this, placed the CD-related suits under SLUSA.

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