In a judgment released earlier this month, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found that the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which regulates securities firms doing business in the U.S., lacks the authority to bring court actions to collect disciplinary fines. The case, Fiero v. FINRA, involved FINRA's pursuit of unpaid fines subsequent to disciplinary action against the plaintiffs.

Specifically, the Court of Appeals found that while Section 15A(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (the Exchange Act) provides self-regulatory organizations with the authority to discipline members by various means, including suspension, fine and censure, the legislation provides no express statutory authority for such organizations to bring judicial actions to actually collect fines. The Court found the statutory omission to be significant and intentional, and compared the provision to section 21(d) of the Exchange Act, which provides the SEC with express authority to seek judicial enforcement of penalties. In addressing the apparent enforcement gap created by FINRA's ability to levy but not pursue fines, the Court noted that FINRA can already enforce fines by the "draconian sanction" of revocation of a firm's registration.

A 1990 rule change purporting to authorize FINRA's collection of fines, meanwhile, was found to have been mischaracterized as a "house-keeping" rule when, in fact, it was a substantive change requiring publication of a notice and comment period. As such, the purported rule change "was never properly promulgated and cannot authorize FINRA to judicially enforce the collection of its disciplinary fines."