For financial services industry employers that participate in arbitrations administered by FINRA, the composition of the arbitration panel may have as much, or more, of an impact on the outcome of the dispute than the facts or the law. This is because FINRA arbitrators are not bound to follow case precedent or strictly apply principals of law and can render awards based on their own notions of “fairness” or “justice.” The important process of selecting an acceptable arbitration panel, however, can be opaque, as the information that FINRA provides about prospective arbitrators often gives limited assistance to employers trying to make informed selections. Further, recent changes to the rules affecting the composition of FINRA arbitration panels, particularly in customer cases, make it even less likely that the dispute will be heard by an experienced panel.

Current Selection Procedures

Traditionally, FINRA administrators provided all parties with three lists of arbitrators from which to select a panel: 10 “public” arbitrators, 10 “non-public” arbitrators, and 10 “public” arbitrators qualified to serve as the panel chairperson. The parties would strike a certain number of arbitrators from each list and rank the remaining arbitrators in order of preference. FINRA would then choose the highest-ranked arbitrator from the two lists to form the panel, which would consist of a “public” chairperson and two panelists, one “public” and the other “non-public.”

Pursuant to a rule change that took effect on February 1, 2011, and was modified on September 30, 2013, either side in a customer dispute can designate an “all-public” panel by striking all of the arbitrators on the “non-public” list. The change may negatively impact employers because “non-public” arbitrators generally have certain defined connections to, or experience in, the securities industry and can bring an insider’s perspective to bear on the dispute that may be useful in understanding an employer’s position. “Public” arbitrators, on the other hand, generally have limited knowledge of securities or financial services and are perceived as being more sympathetic to customers. In fact, according to Regulatory Notice 13-30, FINRA found that “customers were awarded damages significantly more often when an all-public panel decided their case.”

New Rules

On February 26, 2015, the SEC accepted proposed changes to FINRA rules 12100(p), 12100(u), 13100(p), and 13100(u),which set forth new definitions of “public” and “non-public” arbitrators in customer and industry disputes. The new definitions significantly limit the financial industry experience a person can have and still be permitted to serve as a “public” arbitrator. Further, the rules substantially limit the circumstances under which a “non-public” arbitrator can be reclassified as a “public” arbitrator. Under former rule 12100(p) of the Customer Code (and 13100(p) of the Industry Code), there was a “cooling off” period that prohibited an individual who was classified as a “non-public” arbitrator due to his or her affiliation with certain financial services entities from becoming eligible to serve as a “public” arbitrator until five years after he or she retired from the securities industry. Under the revised rules, the “cooling off” period is eliminated and the same individual may be permanently classified as “non-public” and, therefore, ineligible to serve as a “public” arbitrator.

Employers should be aware that these new rules will significantly reduce the number of individuals who can serve as “public” arbitrators and dramatically decrease the likelihood that an assigned “public” arbitrator will have the financial industry experience and understanding that employers in FINRA disputes often seek. For customer disputes in particular, the new rules, taken together with the “all-public” panel rule, greatly increase an employer’s chances of drawing a panel of inexperienced arbitrators with limited understanding of the industry. For industry disputes, where panels still must have one non-public member, the recent rule change further shifts the balance of the panel toward “public” arbitrators with no industry experience.