InvestmentNews Editorials

DOL fiduciary rule enforcement won't be halted after all

Massachusetts may be just the first state to hold firms accountable

Feb 24, 2018 @ 6:00 am

Last Novemberadvisers got word that the teeth of the DOL fiduciary rule — the enforcement mechanism known as the best-interest contract – would be clenched shut for another year and a half.

The legally binding contract between brokers and retirement-account clients, requiring brokers to act in clients' best interests, was postponed until July 1, 2019. In the meantime, the rule, including the BIC, would be under review by the Labor Department, with potential revisions proposed by the new administration before the regulatory mouth could open and take its first bite.

Phew. The sigh of relief from around the industry was audible.

More good news: The Labor Department said it would not "pursue claims against fiduciaries working diligently and in good faith to comply" with the impartial conduct standards, which did go into effect June 9 last year.

Double phew.

But shallow breathing returned Feb. 15 when a jolt to the reprieve came from one William Galvin and his Massachusetts securities division.

The Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth charged Scottrade Inc. with violating the DOL fiduciary rule by ignoring the firm's own policies put in place to meet the regulation's impartial conduct standards. Scottrade allegedly ran two sales contests between June and September 2017, despite a company policy that banned such contests due to their potential to lead brokers away from recommendations in the best interests of their retirement-account clients.

The big question

A question has long lingered about who ultimately would enforce fiduciary requirements of the DOL rule, especially when it came to individual retirement accounts that are not covered by protections of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974.

Parts of the DOL regulation now in effect require advisers to "act in the best interest of customers, charge no more than reasonable compensation and not make misleading statements." But with the best-interest contract, which allows investors to file class-action suits against brokers who violate the rule, in limbo until July 2019, who would hold brokers to these impartial conduct standards?

We now have one answer to that question: the states.

Though Massachusetts appears to be the first state to attempt DOL-rule enforcement, it likely won't be the last. Joseph Borg, president of the North American Securities Administrators Association and director of the Alabama Securities Commission, said he wouldn't hesitate to take action in his state if a concern was brought to his attention by an investor or broker.

(More: State securities regulator says states can enforce DOL fiduciary rule)

"I see this as part of the normal scope of what states ought to be doing to protect their citizens and ensure that firms are following their own rules, let alone state rules," Mr. Borg said.

And this is key. Massachusetts used the DOL rule to show how Scottrade allegedly was violating the state's own securities laws, which it clearly has jurisdiction over. Violations the state regulator pointed to include engaging in unethical or dishonest behavior and failing to supervise advisers.

Attorneys whom InvestmentNews senior reporter Mark Schoeff Jr. spoke with while covering this development agreed that larger urban markets are likely to follow Massachusetts' lead, given the breadth of financial institutions under their purview.

But this discussion leaves one 800-pound gorilla unaccounted for: pending lawsuits against the DOL fiduciary rule.

A plaintiff's attorney in one of the highest profile cases sent a letter to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on the heels of Mr. Galvin's move, using the complaint against Scottrade as an added reason for a prompt decision on the rule by the court.

What happens to any state actions against brokerage firms that don't comply with the DOL fiduciary rule if the regulation is vacated in the courts? And what's to come of any state charges should the Trump administration alters requirements under the rule in the next year and a half?

The takeaway for advisers at this point must be that they are not off the hook while the Labor Department examines its fiduciary rule and the courts weigh the rule's validity. This first complaint of DOL-rule violations proves that, indeed, someone is watching – and willing to hold brokers and their firms to account.


What do you think?

View comments

Recommended for you

Upcoming Event

Sep 10


Denver Women Adviser Summit

The InvestmentNews Women Adviser Summit, a one-day workshop now held in six cities due to popular demand, is uniquely designed for the sophisticated female adviser who wants to take her personal and professional self to the next level.... Learn more

Featured video


Female leaders highlighted as future of financial advice

InvestmentNews recognized 20 Women to Watch for their efforts to advance the financial advice industry.

Latest news & opinion

Finra panel dismisses $100 million case involving drop in Merrill Lynch stock

Former brokers bringing charges related to stock losses during financial crisis have had 15 cases proceed, four stopped so far.

Principal-Wells Fargo retirement deal would be among largest ever

Acquisition would be in line with trend of record keepers seeking to gain scale to combat fee reduction.

ESG options scarce in 401(k) plans

There's growing interest among plan participants, but reluctance to add funds that take into account environmental, social and governance factors persists.

Ameriprise getting ready to launch its bank

Firm's advisers will soon have access to lending products such as mortgages.

Envestnet acquires MoneyGuide for $500 million

Deal will allow Envestnet to deepen integrations between MoneyGuide and its other wealth management solutions.


Hi! Glad you're here and we hope you like all the great work we do here at InvestmentNews. But what we do is expensive and is funded in part by our sponsors. So won't you show our sponsors a little love by whitelisting It'll help us continue to serve you.

Yes, show me how to whitelist

Ad blocker detected. Please whitelist us or give premium a try.


Subscribe and Save 60%

Premium Access
Print + Digital

Learn more
Subscribe to Print