Articles Posted in Suitability

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Piggybank in a CageOn November 9, 2018, GPB Capital Holdings, LLC (“GPB”) notified certain broker-dealers who had been selling investments in its various funds that GPB’s auditor, Crowe LLP, elected to resign.  As reported, GPB’s CEO, David Gentile, stated that the resignation purportedly came about “[d]ue to perceived risks that Crowe determined fell outside of their internal risk tolerance parameters.”  GPB has since engaged EisnerAmper LLP to provide it with audit services moving forward.

As we recently discussed, GPB has come under considerable scrutiny of late.  In August 2018, the sponsor of various private placement investment offerings including GPB Automotive Portfolio and GPB Holdings II, announced that it was not accepting any new investor capital, and furthermore, was suspending any redemptions of investor funds.  This announcement followed GPB’s April 2018 failure to produce audited financial statements for its two largest aforementioned funds.  By September 2018, securities regulators in Massachusetts disclosed that they had commenced an investigation into the sales practices of some 63 independent broker-dealers who have reportedly offered private placement investments in various GPB funds.  To name a few, these broker-dealers include: HighTower Securities, Advisor Group’s four independent broker-dealers – FSC Securities, SagePoint Financial Services, Woodbury Financial Services, and Royal Alliance Associates, in addition to Ladenburg Thalmann’s Triad Advisors.

The various GPB private placement offerings include:

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https://i1.wp.com/www.investorlawyers.net/blog/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/15.10.14-apartment-buildings.jpg?resize=300%2C210&ssl=1NorthStar Healthcare Income, Inc. (“NorthStar Healthcare”) is a public, non-traded REIT formed in October 2010 as a Maryland corporation.  NorthStar Healthcare is in the business of acquiring a geographically diverse portfolio of various healthcare real estate assets, including equity and debt investments (including various joint ventures with other non-traded REITs) in the mid-acuity senior housing sector, as well as in memory care, skilled nursing, and independent living facilities.  Pursuant to its initial offering, which closed on February 2, 2015, the non-traded REIT raised gross proceeds of $1.1 billion (subsequently, NorthStar Healthcare conducted a Follow-on Primary offering, raising total gross proceeds of $1.9 billion through March 22, 2017).

As a publicly registered, non-traded REIT, numerous retail investors were solicited by a financial advisor to invest in NorthStar Healthcare.  Unfortunately, customers who purchased shares through the IPO upon the recommendation of a broker may, in some instances, have been uninformed of the complex nature of the investment, including its high upfront commissions and fees (as set forth in its prospectus, NorthStar Healthcare charged investors a selling commission of up to 7% of gross offering proceeds, a dealer-manager fee of up to 3%, and an acquisition fee of 2.25% for properties acquired by the REIT).

Furthermore, as a non-traded REIT, NorthStar Healthcare is illiquid in nature.  Investors seeking liquidity have limited options at their disposal in the event that they wish to exit their investment position in the near term.  Briefly, investors seeking liquidity may: (i) seek to redeem their shares directly with the sponsor (it is worth noting that NorthStar is “not obligated to repurchase shares” under its Share Repurchase Program), or (ii) be presented with limited, market-driven opportunities to tender their shares to a third party professional investment firm (typically at a disadvantageous price), or finally, (iii) seek to sell their shares on a limited secondary market specializing in creating a market for illiquid securities.

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BuildingHeadquartered in Newport Beach, CA, KBS Real Estate Investment Trust II, Inc. (“KBS II”) was formed as a Maryland REIT in July 2007.  Pursuant to its public offering, KBS II offered 280 million shares of common stock, of which 200 million shares were registered in its primary offering, and an additional 80 million common shares were registered under the non-traded REIT’s dividend reinvestment plan.  KBS II’s initial offering closed on December 31, 2010, with 182,681,633 shares sold, thus raising gross offering proceeds of $1.8 billion.

Many KBS II investors may have been steered into this complex investment by a financial advisor or stockbroker.  Unfortunately, KBS II investors may have been uninformed as to the illiquid nature of their investment (as a non-traded REIT, KBS II shares do not trade on a national securities exchange), and now have limited options if they seek liquidity on their investment.

In January 2016, KBS II’s board of directors formed a Special Committee for the purpose of exploring “the availability of strategic alternatives.”  Subsequently, the Special Committee determined that it was in the best interest of KBS II stockholders to market some of the non-traded REIT’s assets, and depending on the scope of the asset sales, “thereafter adopt a plan of liquidation that would involve the sale” of remaining KBS II assets.

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On August 14, 2018, the Enforcement Section of the Massachusetts Securities Division (the “Division”) filed a Complaint against StockCross Financial Services, Inc. (“StockCross”) (CRD# 6670), as well as one of its registered representatives, Mr. Peter E. Cunningham (“Cunningham”) (CRD# 2400211).  Through its administrative action, the Division has alleged that Cunningham engaged in “[i]mproper buys and sells of an investment known as a unit investment trust (“UIT”) throughout Cunningham’s Massachusetts client accounts.”  The Division also alleges that StockCross failed to properly supervise Cunningham, and even promoted him, despite its awareness of Mr. Cunningham’s previous checkered regulatory history — including six customer complaints resulting in approx. $330,000 in settlement payments to investors.

Piggybank in a Cage
A UIT is a type of security that shares some similarities to mutual funds and closed-end funds (CEFs), insofar as a UIT consists of a basket of different investments.  Historically, most UITs were structured as vehicles in which to purchase a basket of municipal bonds.  Over time, UITs have evolved to the point where today, retail investors might invest in a variety of UITs offering exposure to various asset classes and economic sectors.  However, unlike traditional mutual funds or CEFs, UITs are structured with a finite lifespan, and thus cease upon a given predetermined date.  Additionally, UITs generally charge investors high fees, as high as 3-5% of the initial investment.  Unfortunately, as a result of their fee structure, some brokers and investment advisers will encourage their clients to actively trade in and out of UITs, a practice commonly referred to as “switching” and akin to churning an investment portfolio, in an effort to generate excessive commissions for the benefit of the broker, and to the detriment of the uninformed investor.  Switching transactions that appear to be fee-motivated may give rise to investor claims against advisors.

As alleged by the Division, since as early as 2012, “[C]unningham has engaged in short-term UIT trading in the accounts of his Massachusetts clients.  Of [his] approximate 180 clients, nearly 60, or approximately 30%, are Massachusetts residents.  Statements from [his] Massachusetts client accounts reflect sales of UITs as soon as 26 days after purchase and sometimes years before the UIT is predetermined to reach its maturity date.  Cunningham often used proceeds of the sales to buy other UITs.”

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investing in real estate through a limited partnershipAs recently announced, the board of directors of Hines Real Estate Investment Trust, Inc. (“Hines REIT” or the “Company”) — one of three publicly registered non-traded REITs sponsored by Hines — has unanimously voted for approval of a plan of liquidation and dissolution of the Company (“Liquidation Plan”).  Under the Liquidation Plan, which calls for  shareholder approval, the Company will sell seven of its West Coast office building assets in a cash transaction valued at $1.162 billion to an affiliate of Blackstone Real Estate Partners VIII.  In addition, Hines REIT also seeks to liquidate the remainder of its portfolio, including Chase Tower in Dallas, TX, 321 North Clark in Chicago, and a grocery-anchored retail portfolio located in the Southeastern U.S.

Pursuant to the Liquidation Plan, Hines REIT shareholders will receive $0.08 per share, to be paid on or about July 31, 2018.  Specifically, the Liquidation Plan entails a final distribution of $0.07 per share, as well as an additional $0.01 per share stemming from a recent class action settlement.  The class action settlement involves a lawsuit filed by Baltimore City in the Circuit Court of Maryland, alleging breach of fiduciary duty, waste of corporate assets, and misappropriation of assets surrounding certain payments made in connection with the Liquidation Plan.

Hines REIT shareholders previously approved the Liquidation Plan in November 2016; subsequent to shareholder approval, the Company declared an initial liquidating distribution of $6.20 per share in December 2016, as well as a $0.30 per share liquidating distribution in April 2017.  Following the final distribution of $0.08 per share, Hines REIT investors will have received total special and liquidating distributions of approximately $7.59 per share, in addition to regular annual distributions.  Shares were originally sold for $10 each.

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Building DemolishedAs recently reported, third party real estate investment firms Everest REIT Investors I LLC and Everest REIT Investors III LLC, two private affiliated entities, commenced an unsolicited tender offer to purchase approximately 8.8 million shares of CNL Healthcare Properties, Inc. (“CNL Healthcare”) common stock for $7.50 each.  Unless amended, this unsolicited tender offer will expire on August 31, 2018.  As of December 31, 2017, CNL Healthcare reported a net asset value (NAV) of $10.32 per share.  Thus, the recent tender offer pricing represents an approximate 27% discount on CNL’s recent NAV pricing and suggests that investors may have incurred principal losses on their investments.

Headquartered in Orlando, FL, CNL Healthcare is a Maryland REIT incorporated in June 2010 for the purpose of acquiring a portfolio of geographically diverse healthcare real estate real estate-related assets, including certain senior housing communities, medical office buildings, and acute care hospitals.

Investors in CNL Healthcare may have claims to bring in FINRA arbitration, if the investment was recommended by a broker or financial advisor who lacked a reasonable basis for the recommendation, or if the financial advisor misrepresented the nature of the investment, including its risk components.

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Money MazeAs recently reported, former broker Kyusun Kim (a/k/a Kyu Sun Kim, a/k/a Kenny Kim) (CRD# 2864085) has consented to a “sanction and to the entry of findings [by FINRA] that he made unsuitable recommendations to numerous senior customers, who were retiring or had retired that they concentrate their retirement assets and liquid net worth in speculative and illiquid securities.”  Pursuant to a Letter of Acceptance, Waiver & Consent (AWC) accepted by FINRA on June 26, 2018 — and under which Mr. Kim neither admitted nor denied FINRA’s findings — the former financial advisor voluntarily consented to a “bar from association with any FINRA member in any and all capacities.”

Publicly available information via FINRA BrokerCheck indicates that Mr. Kim first entered the securities industry in 1997, and most recently was affiliated with Independent Financial Group, LLC (CRD# 7717) from 2006 – 2016 and, thereafter, Sandlapper Securities, LLC (CRD# 137906) from March 2016 – April 2017.  Furthermore, BrokerCheck indicates that Mr. Kim has been the subject of or otherwise involved in 23 customer disputes.  With regard to these customer disputes, 13 of these complaints resulted in settlements, while 9 complaints remain pending (1 complaint was denied in October 2010).  As to the pending customer complaints, the allegations raised center on Mr. Kim’s purported “… breach of fiduciary duty, breach of oral and written contract, violation of state and federal securities laws, violation of FINRA rules of fair practice … [and] unsuitable investments.”

As encapsulated within the June 26, 2018 AWC, it has been alleged that Mr. Kim “falsely inflated the net worth figures of several customers on their new account forms and other documents so that they appeared eligible to purchase certain speculative investments, in violation of NASD Rules 3110 and 2110 and FINRA Rules 4511 and 2010.”  Moreover, as set forth in the AWC, Mr. Kim allegedly made unsuitable investment recommendations to senior customers in violation of NASD Rules 2310 and 2110, as well as FINRA Rules 2111 and 2010.

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Piggy Bank in a CageAs recently reported, third-party real estate investment firm MacKenzie Realty Capital (“MacKenzie”) launched an unsolicited tender offer to purchase up to 1 million shares of Carter Validus Mission Critical REIT, Inc. (“Carter Validus”) shares for $3.36 per share.  The tender offer is set to expire on June 25, 2018.  While the Carter Validus Board has recommended that shareholders reject the offer, the non-traded REIT’s share repurchase program is already fully subscribed for 2018.  Further compounding the problem, Carter Validus recently reported that its largest tenant by revenue — Bay Area Regional Medical Center, LLC in Webster, TX — has declared bankruptcy.  Currently, investors seeking immediate liquidity on their Carter Validus investment have limited options at their disposal.

Headquartered in Tampa, Florida, Carter Validus is a publicly registered, non-traded REIT that is focused on investing in net leased data centers and healthcare properties.  As recently reported, Carter Validus’ portfolio consists of 66 properties, including 3 data centers and 63 healthcare properties.  The REIT’s offering, declared effective by the SEC in December 2010, closed in June 2014 after raising approximately $1.7 billion in investor equity.

As a publicly registered non-traded REIT, Carter Validus was permitted to sell securities to the investing public at large, including numerous unsophisticated retail investors who bought shares through the IPO upon the recommendation of a broker or financial advisor.  Many ordinary investors may be unaware of the high up-front commissions (typically between 7-10% of the initial investment) associated with non-traded REITs like Carter Validus.  Further, some investors may have been improperly steered into Carter Validus, without first being fully informed of the investment’s complex nature and inherent risks.

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money whirlpoolIn response to the low interest rate environment that has prevailed for a decade, many brokerage firms — including well-known wirehouses such as Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, and UBS — have reportedly recommended various options strategies to their customers as supposedly safe and efficient mechanisms to enhance income.  However, when stock markets turn volatile, these strategies can quickly spiral into unexpected investment losses for retail investors — as recently occurred during a spike in stock market volatility that peaked on February 5, 2018.

Despite the risks embedded in options, particularly naked options, brokerage firms like Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and UBS have reportedly presented some retail investors with opportunities to engage in sophisticated, highly complex options strategies, often fraught with risk.  One such options strategy, marketed in some instances as a yield enhancement strategy (or “YES”), involves writing so-called iron condors through S&P 500 derived options.  In some instances, investors are steered into such strategies seeking the option premium income, without actually understanding the risks associated with options trading strategies.

When it comes to yield enhancement options strategies, perhaps the most commonly used financial instrument is the extremely well-known S&P 500 Index (“SPX”), a stock index based on the 500 largest companies whose stock is listed for trading on the NYSE or NASDAQ.  The Chicago Board Options Exchange (“CBOE”) is the exclusive provider of SPX options.  In this regard, CBOE provides a range of SPX options with varying settlement ranges and dates, including A.M. and P.M. settlement, weekly options and end-of-month options.  Significantly, because SPX is a theoretical index, an investor who engages in options trading using SPX will necessarily be engaging in uncovered, or naked, options trading.

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Oil Drilling RigsInvestors in various oil drilling programs offered by Vista Resources, Inc. (“Vista”), may be able to recover losses sustained on their investment through arbitration before FINRA, in the event that the investment was recommended by a financial advisor who lacked a reasonable basis for the recommendation, or if the nature of the investment — including its risk components — was misrepresented by the advisor and his or her brokerage firm.  Founded in 1987, Vista is headquartered in Pittsburgh, PA.  Over the course of the past several decades, Vista has managed roughly 60 drilling programs, typically structured as industry joint ventures or limited partnerships.

Included among Vista’s recent programs are: Vista Drilling Program 2011-1, Vista Drilling Program 2012, and Vista Drilling Program 2013-2 (collectively, “Vista Programs”).  These Vista Programs are extremely complex and risky investment vehicles, for a number of reasons.  To begin, these private oil and gas investments charge very high fees to investors.  For example, Vista charges investors an approximate 10% up-front commission.  In addition, Vista charges an approximate 12% markup fee on the costs associated with drilling for productive oil reserves.  Such high up-front commissions and fees act as an immediate “drag” on the initial investment, and present significant risk to the uninformed retail investor.

Further, these Vista Programs are allowed to use up to 20% of investor capital to drill speculative exploratory wells.  A broker recommending such an investment has a duty to inform the investor of such risks, and of the capital-intensive and speculative nature of oil drilling as an investment.  Moreover, the brokerage firm — and by extension, the broker — recommending such an investment, have a duty to first conduct due diligence on the investment.