All posts tagged fiduciary duty

According to a variety of authorities including the SEC, the much-debated fiduciary duty for registered investment advisers and their representatives includes a subset of responsibilities[1].  Common sense would, or should tell you that the appropriate damage calculation for a breach of fiduciary duty will be directly dependent upon and vary according to the particular unfulfilled responsibility.  For example, a breach of the fiduciary duty regarding conflicts of interest or honesty, as opposed to mere suitability, will call for out-of-pocket damage compensation if these breaches occurred before any market-losses at issue.  Even in a suitability only arbitration, however, expert witnesses may debate the applicability of out-of-pocket loss calculations as opposed to model portfolio based market-adjusted damage calculations.

It is common in breach of fiduciary duty cases involving trustees to award damages in the amount necessary to make the beneficiary whole. Restatement of Trusts, Second, § 2205, (1957), provides that proof of harm from a breach of fiduciary duty entitles an injured party to whom the duty was owed to damages that: (a) place the injured party in the same position it would have been in but for the fiduciary breach;(b) place the non-breaching party in the position the party was in before the breach; and (c) equal any profit the breaching fiduciary made as a result of committing the breach. See also Restatement (Second) of Torts § 874 (1979) (“One standing in a fiduciary relation with another is subject to liability to the other for harm resulting from a breach of duty imposed by the relation.”).

Delaware law is consistent with this principle. In Hogg v. Walker, 622 A.2d 648, 653 (Del. 1993), the court noted that “where it is necessary to make the successful plaintiff whole” for a breach of fiduciary duty, courts have been willing to allow the plaintiff to recover a portion of trust property or its proceeds along with a money judgment for the remainder. The court in Hogg stated that “[i]t is an established principle of law in Delaware that a surcharge is properly imposed to compensate the trust beneficiaries for monetary losses due to a trustee’s lack of care in the performance of his or her fiduciary duties.” Id. at 654.[2]; see also Weinberger v. UOP, Inc., 457 A.2d 701, 714 (Del. 1983) (stating that in measuring damages for breach of fiduciary duty the court has complete power “to fashion any form of equitable and monetary relief as may be appropriate, including rescissory damages.”); Harman v. Masoneilan Intern., Inc., 442 A.2d 487, 500 (Del. 1982) (finding that “the relief available in equity for tortious conduct by one standing in a fiduciary relation with another is necessarily broad and flexible.”) (citing See Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 874 (1979)).

In O’Malley v. Boris, 742 A.2d 845, 849 (Del. 1999), the court stated that the relationship between a customer and stock broker is that of principal and agent. The court stated a broker must act in the customer’s best interests and must refrain from self-dealing, and that these obligations are at times described “as fiduciary duties of good faith, fair dealing, and loyalty.” (emphasis added) Id. The court further found that fiduciary duties of investment advisors “are comparable to the fiduciary duties of corporate directors, and are limited only by the scope of the agency.” Id.   Bear, Stearns & Co. v. Buehler, 432 F.Supp.2d 1024, 1027 (C.D.Cal. 2000) (finding that reasoning from case addressing breach of fiduciary duty by a trustee was persuasive in case involving investment advisor because, “[l]ike a trustee, an investment advisor may be considered a fiduciary.”).

In sum, it is critical to identify the particular duty at issue in order to arrive at a proper damage calculation.  The broker’s duty of suitability is essentially a limited duty of care akin to the one at play in a negligence matter. The fiduciary duty, however, carries within it an entire penumbra of duties of which portfolio/investment suitability is just one.  If an alleged breach of fiduciary duty is limited to the adviser’s responsibility to recommend or make a suitable investment only, the damage calculations may indeed mirror the broker-dealer damage calculation.  An adviser’s breach of its fiduciary duty beyond the mere standard of investment care, however, requires the finder-of-fact to calculate “make-whole” damages.

______________________________________________________________________________________________

[1]Miley v. Openheimer, 637 F.3d 318 (1981) is “the seminal case on damages in a suitability case[.]”

[2] A “surcharge” is relief in the form of monetary compensation for a loss resulting from a trustee’s breach of duty. The Supreme Court in CIGNA Corp. v. Amara, 131 S.Ct. 1866, 1880 (2011), stated that an ERISA fiduciary can be “surcharged” or ordered to pay money damages under the ERISA provision allowing a participant or beneficiary of the plan to obtain “other appropriate equitable relief.” In making this determination, the court stated that “[t]he surcharge remedy extended to a breach of trust committed by a fiduciary encompassing any violation of a duty imposed upon that fiduciary.” The court went on to conclude that “insofar as an award of make-whole relief is concerned, the fact that the defendant in this case, . . . , is analogous to a trustee makes a critical difference.”

Being a fiduciary to clients means acting in the client’s best interest and putting their interest before yours and others. Sometimes knowing what is in the client’s best interest can get foggy so establishing certain guidelines can help protect you, your client, and your representatives.
In accordance with Rule 204A-1 of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, RIA’s registered with the SEC are required to maintain a written code of ethics that outline the fiduciary duties and standards of conduct of the RIA and its representatives. State registered RIA’s may also be required to develop a code of ethics consistent with state regulations.
It’s important to keep in mind that in creating a code of ethics, the SEC and various state regulations set minimum requirements.  The following items are required in an RIA’s code of ethics under Rule 204A-1:
  • A standard of business conduct which reflects the fiduciary obligations to clients;
  • Provisions requiring all advisers’ and supervised persons’ compliance with applicable federal securities laws;
  • Protection of material non-public information of both the adviser’s securities recommendations, and client securities holdings and transactions;
  • Periodic reporting and reviewing of access persons’ personal securities transactions and holdings;
  • Adviser’s approval before an access person can invest in an IPO or private placement;
  • Duty to report violations of the code of ethics;
  •  A written acknowledgment that all supervised persons received the code of ethics; and
  • Recordkeeping provisions.
RIAs often set higher standards that work to reinforce the values or business practices of the company.  Rule 204A-1 does not require detailed measures to be included into every code because of the vast differences among advisory firms.  However, the SEC has offered guidance and recommendations on additional best practices that advisors should consider incorporating into its code of ethics.  The following list contains additional safeguards that are commonly implemented by other advisers:
  • Prior written approval before access persons can place a personal securities transaction (“pre-clearance”);
  • Maintenance of lists of issuers of securities that the advisory firm is analyzing or recommending for client transactions, and prohibitions on personal trading in securities of those issuers;
  • Maintenance of “restricted lists” of issuers about which the advisory firm has inside information, and prohibitions on any trading (personal or for clients) in securities of those issuers;
  • “Blackout periods” when client securities trades are being placed or recommendations are being made and access persons are not permitted to place personal securities transactions.
  • Reminders that investment opportunities must be offered first to clients before the adviser or its employees may act on them, and procedures to implement this principle.
  • Prohibitions or restrictions on “short-swing” trading and market timing.
  • Requirements to trade only through certain brokers, or limitations on the number of brokerage accounts permitted;
  • Requirements to provide the adviser with duplicate trade confirmations and account statements; and
  • Procedures for assigning new securities analyses to employees whose personal holdings do not present apparent conflicts of interest.
Another issue that may be important to include in your code of ethics is provisions concerning gifts and entertainment since giving or receiving gifts between a client and adviser may create the appearance of impropriety.  Gift and entertainment provisions usually contain reporting requirements and a prohibition of accepting gifts over de minimus values, such as $100.
While the above requirements and recommendations generally encompass an adviser’s fiduciary duty as it relates to conflicts of interests, advisers have additional fiduciary duties to clients that should be memorialized in a code of ethics as well.  For example, and what might appear obvious to some, advisers cannot defraud or engage in manipulative practices with a client in any way.  Advisers also have a duty to have a reasonable, independent basis for the investment advice provided to a client and to ensure that investment advice meets the client’s individual objectives, needs, and circumstances.  Advisers are also expected to stay abreast of market conditions.  Clients should be provided with all material information related to their investments or investment strategy and should be adequately informed of the risks associated with those investments.  The depth of the explanation of those risks or strategy depends on the client’s level education and experience.
The buck doesn’t stop with establishing a written code of ethics, however.  Implementation and enforcement of your code of ethics are just as crucial.  This also includes educating your representatives.  Rule 204A-1 does not mandate specific training procedures but ensuring that your representatives understand their obligations and their fiduciary duties is imperative.  Thus, periodic training with new and existing employees is not only in your best interest, but also the interest of your employees and clients.  Finally, you should annually review your code of ethics to determine if there are any areas of deficiency or whether changes need to be made.

The Syndicate can assist with your firm in the following ways: (1) drafting or establishing a code of ethics; (2) reviewing your current code to assure it complies with applicable state or federal laws; (3) implementing training programs; and (4) analyzing your firm’s implementation procedures to ensure compliance with the codes provisions.

The Securities and Exchange Commission regulates larger investment advisers under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (the “Act”). In a previous posting, we noted that perhaps the most significant provision of the Act is Section 206, which prohibits advisers from defrauding their clients and which has been interpreted by the Supreme Court as imposing on advisers a fiduciary duty to their clients. See Transamerica Mortgage Advisors, Inc. (TAMA) v. Lewis, 444 U.S. 11, 17 (1979) (“[T]he Act’s legislative history leaves no doubt that Congress intended to impose enforceable fiduciary obligations.”).

A number of obligations to clients flow from the fiduciary duty imposed by the Act, including the duty to act in the clients’ best interests, to fully disclose any material conflicts the adviser has with its clients, to seek best execution for client transactions, to provide only suitable investment advice, and to have a reasonable basis for client recommendations. SeeRegistration Under the Advisers Act of Certain Hedge Fund Advisers, SEC Release No. IA-2333Status of Investment Advisory Programs under the Investment Company Act of 1940, SEC Release No. IA-1623.

From these fiduciary obligations arises the duty to properly explain investments or an investment strategy to clients. Where a financial adviser provides advice about investments, “a fiduciary duty is breached when the client is encouraged to purchase an investment with a level of risk that is not appropriate for the client, or is not properly informed of the speculative nature of an investment.” Sakai v. Merrill Lynch Life Ins. Co., C-06-2581 MMC, 2008 WL 4193058 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 10, 2008) (citing Vucinich v. Paine, Webber, Jackson & Curtis, Inc., 803 F.2d 454, 460-61 (9th Cir.1986) (holding that broker had fiduciary duty to fully inform client of nature and risks of selling short, “in terms capable of being understood by someone of [client’s] education and experience.”)).

“A fiduciary must provide a proper disclosure and explanation of the investment activity, and should warn a client to exercise caution if an investment presents a greater risk than tolerable, given the client’s goals and circumstances.” Id.see also Gochnauer v. A.G. Edwards & Sons, Inc., 810 F.2d 1042, 1049-50 (11th Cir. 1987) (finding that where adviser assisted clients in establishing speculative option trading account, “[a] more studied opinion of the risks of option trading in light of the [clients’] then-existing investment objective was owed by [the adviser] to [his clients]. This he failed to do, in breach of his fiduciary duty.”); In re Old Naples Sec., Inc., 343 B.R. 310, 324 (Bankr. M.D. Fla. 2006) (stating that “failing to disclose and fully explain the risk of an investment to an investor can be a breach of the broker’s fiduciary duty.”); Rupert v. Clayton Brokerage Co. of St. Louis, Inc., 737 P.2d 1106, 1109 (Colo. 1987) (“A broker who becomes a fiduciary of his client must act with utmost good faith, reasonable care, and loyalty concerning the customer’s account, and owes a duty . . . to keep the customer informed as to each completed transaction, and to explain forthrightly the practical impact and potential risks of the course of dealing in which the broker is engaged.”).

A good example of the application of the fiduciary duty to explain comes from Faron v. Waddell & Reed, Inc., 930 S.W.2d 508 (Mo. App. E.D. 1996).  Although this case involves a broker-dealer as opposed to an investment adviser, Missouri imposes an unambiguous fiduciary standard on broker-dealers.  In Faron, the client approached a registered representative of the broker-dealer inquiring whether he could obtain money from a trust to purchase a new home. He asked whether it would “cost any money.” Id. at 510. After he consulted with the registered representative he felt assured he could get the money and the transaction would result in no cost to him. He did not specifically consider tax ramifications nor did he directly ask about tax consequences. He assumed Waddell & Reed was lending the money to him to use, at no cost. However, instead of a loan the transaction actually consisted of a redemption of mutual funds. Id. He obtained the $250,000 from Waddell & Reed, returning the same amount within the required 21 days. The client’s accountant discovered the tax liability in the amount of approximately $32,000 while preparing an income tax return. The accountant brought it to the attention of the client, who brought suit against Waddell & Reed.

The trial court granted summary judgment for Waddell & Reed, finding that Waddell & Reed had no duty to provide tax information because none was requested.  On appeal, the court noted:

In Missouri, stockbrokers owe customers a fiduciary duty. This fiduciary duty includes at least these obligations: to manage the account as dictated by the customer’s needs and objectives, to inform of risks in particular investments, to refrain from self-dealing, to follow order instructions, to disclose any self-interest, to stay abreast of market changes, and to explain strategies. Implicit in these obligations is a duty to disclose to the customer material facts.

Id. at 511 (emphasis added).

The court of appeals found that Waddell & Reed was privy to information and had expertise not yet proven on summary judgment to be equally or reasonably available to the client. In particular, the registered representative was aware of details of the transaction which consisted of a redemption of mutual funds, while the clients understood the transaction to amount to a short-term loan. Id. Waddell & Reed had a duty to manage the account according to the client’s expressed needs and objectives, to bridge finance by use of trust assets with “no loss whatsoever,” if possible, or to inform the client of the costs. Id. The client communicated his concerns about possible costs associated with the proposed transaction to the registered representative. The client was not told how the transaction would occur but was told it would not cost any money. The court of appeals concluded that what was meant by “costs” in the discussions between the parties remained uncertain. This implicated an unresolved question of fact, making summary judgment for Waddell & Reed inappropriate. Id.

In sum, the fiduciary duty standard requires that the client be properly informed of the nature of an investment or investment strategy. What is necessary in order to meet this standard will depend on the facts and circumstances of each case. A more in depth explanation of the risks of an investment or investment strategy will be necessary where the client’s related education and experience is minimal. Similarly, a more detailed explanation of strategy will become necessary where the strategy being implemented is more speculative in nature. Whether the fiduciary duty to explain has been met will usually be a question of fact to be decided by the judge, jury, or arbitrator after hearing all of the evidence.