Can a brokerage firm sue Finra?
That's a question one broker-dealer is asking the Supreme Court to consider.
The high court this month is expected to decide whether to take up a lawsuit brought against NASD by Standard Investment Chartered Inc. over the self-regulator's 2007 merger with the regulatory unit of the New York Stock Exchange.
Standard, an investment banking boutique, insists that the proxy used by the NASD in soliciting member approval for the merger was fraudulent.
NASD since has been renamed the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Inc.
Government entities, including private organizations with government-delegated authority, generally enjoy absolute legal immunity in performing official duties. Court cases have granted protection specifically to securities self-regulatory organizations.
Standard argues that the merger was not a legally protected regulatory function of Finra.
The brokerage firm wants the Supreme Court justices to hear that case because it claims that lower courts have issued conflicting opinions on immunity for SROs and other state actors.
The Standard suit has already been thrown out twice by courts — in 2010 by a New York U.S. District Court judge and then again last year by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
But the Supreme Court could take a different view. In June 2010, it ruled that the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, a private oversight body set up under the Sarbanes-Oxley law, was unconstitutional because its members were not sufficiently overseen by the executive branch.
The Standard appeal has attracted an unlikely assortment of allies among business and consumer groups.
“The case presents a situation where a quasi-governmental entity is abusing its power,” said Ilya Shapiro, a constitutional lawyer at the libertarian Cato Institute, which joined with the Competitive Enterprise Institute in filing an amicus brief on behalf of Standard.
“Our legal interest is really to make government accountable,” he said.
There's a larger principle at stake: to what extent state actors can be held accountable, said William Anderson, one of Standard's lawyers at Cuneo Gilbert & LaDuca LLP. “That's why the various groups have weighed in” with amicus briefs, he said.
“We're concerned about the court's overextension of immunity” to private organizations, said Scott Michelman, a staff attorney at the Public Citizen Litigation Group, which, together with Consumer Action, The Project On Government Oversight and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, also is urging the Supreme Court to take the case.
“In this case, immunity has been extended to private corporate actors ... in a way that could prevent corporate accountability,” he said.
Standard and its supporters dispute the earlier court findings that NASD's proxy and merger were “incident to” its regulatory activities and thus protected.
The Cato Institute argues that such a standard “would be the equivalent of shielding a judge who ran down a pedestrian on his way to the courthouse simply because his travel there eventually will lead to his exercising judicial power.”
Courts first gave SROs legal protection in 1985, and the breadth of that immunity has expanded ever since, according to Standard's supporters.
“It seems to me that what [Finra was] doing was acting as a business entity rather than as a regulator,” Mr. Shapiro said.
Jack Norberg, chairman of Standard, did not return a call seeking comment.
For its part, Finra insists that there is no issue with immunity for SROs.
“Every court of appeals to consider the issue has agreed that SROs are absolutely immune from private lawsuits for money damages attacking conduct that falls within the scope of their regulatory functions,” Finra said in a filing with the Supreme Court.
Finra claims that Standard is “distorting the relevant case law” and that the 2nd Circuit and other courts have held consistently that absolute immunity does not apply to nonregulatory activities.
Standard, Finra contended in the filing, simply disagrees with earlier court conclusions that the proxy process was a regulatory action.
Finra spokeswoman Michelle Ong declined to comment.
IRS WEIGHS IN
The 2007 merger required NASD members to approve bylaw changes that significantly reduced their voting power in the new organization.
NASD was able to get the changes approved with the help of a one-time $35,000 payment. Standard claims that NASD lied in its proxy and other communications when it claimed that $35,000 was the most it could pay under IRS rules.
An IRS opinion letter laying out permissible amounts that could be paid to broker-dealers to approve the merger has been subject to a court-ordered seal, but in a 2009 hearing, one of Standard's attorneys said the letter indicated that member firms could have received an additional $35,000 to $76,000.
If the Supreme Court takes the case and rules for Standard, the dispute could go back to lower courts for rehearing, and member firms could possibly get a larger payout, Mr. Anderson said.
But some doubt that the Supreme Court will let that happen.
“SROs are immune — that's the law,” said Jonathan Kord Lagemann, a veteran industry defense attorney and founder of the Lagemann Law Offices.
“Whether it should be that way is another story.”