On March 11, 2021, a FINRA arbitrator awarded expungement relief to George D. Ewins Jr. and Richard J. Kowalski, former Merrill Lynch financial advisors. Ewins and Kowalski were represented by Robert J. Moses of Lax & Neville LLP. Ewins and Kowalski sought expungement of a customer complaint from their registration records maintained by the Central Registration Depository (“CRD”). CRD is the central licensing and registration system for the securities industry and its regulators, which contains information made available to the public via FINRA’s BrokerCheck. Pursuant to FINRA Rules 2080 and 13805, an arbitrator may grant an expungement of customer dispute information from a registered representative’s CRD record. In the underlying arbitration filed by the customers, the customers alleged that Ewins, Kowalski, Merrill Lynch and Bank of America (“BOA”) sold Merrill Lynch proprietary volatility indices linked to structured notes known as Strategic Return Notes which were unsuitable in light of their investment objectives. Merrill Lynch and Bank of America settled with the customers which resulted in the customers’ not having any out-of-pocket losses. Ewins and Kowalski did not contribute to the settlement.
Pursuant to FINRA Rule 13805 of the FINRA Code of Arbitration Procedure (“Code”), the FINRA arbitrator in the expungement proceeding made the following FINRA Rule 2080 affirmative finding of fact: “[t]he claim, allegation, or information is false.” According to the Award, the arbitrator reached this conclusion “based upon the fact that neither Ewins nor Kowalski was responsible for the failure of Merrill Lynch and BOA to make the requisite disclosures concerning the fixed costs associated with the Strategic Return Notes. Both Ewins and Kowalski testified credibly that they performed necessary due diligence before they recommended the Strategic Return Notes for the customers. There is no reason to conclude that either Ewins or Kowalski could have reasonably questioned the validity, accuracy and completeness of the Strategic Return Notes offering materials prior to the SEC and FINRA actions. One of the customers who filed the underlying arbitration submitted a detailed written response to Ewins and Kowalski’s request for expungement and testified at the expungement hearing that he “personally do[es] not have a problem with a potential expungement of the petitioner[s’] record[s] if they have met the burden for their record to be cleared,” and that he did not want Ewins and Kowalski to have adverse consequences from having the disclosures on their CRDs.
As noted by the arbitrator in the Award, Merrill Lynch agreed to pay a $10 million penalty to settle charges by the SEC that Merrill Lynch violated securities laws and was responsible for misleading statements in offering materials provided to retail investors for structured notes linked to a proprietary volatility index. Merrill Lynch also agreed to a Letter of Acceptance, Waiver and Consent (“AWC”) with FINRA in connection with the same disclosure violations.