As part of its ongoing regulatory focus on variable annuity (“VA”) sales misconduct, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) has recently barred a former Next Financial Group (“Next Financial”) (CRD# 46214) broker. Registered representative JoeAnn Walker (CRD# 2210194) was previously affiliated with Commonwealth Financial Network (1998-2006), LPL Financial LLC (2006-2015), and most recently, NEXT Financial – until her termination by her former employer in October. According to FINRA, it was conducting an inquiry into whether Ms. Walker was engaging in possible unsuitable VA sales practices.
As we have discussed in several recent blog posts, FINRA has ramped up its efforts in recent months to target VA sales practice misconduct. Since handing down a $20 million fine against MetLife Securities, Inc. (“MSI”) in May, 2016 (in addition, FINRA ordered MSI to pay $5 million to customers in connection with allegations of making negligent material misrepresentations and omissions on VA replacement applications), FINRA enforcement has continued to fine numerous member firms and investigate certain financial advisors concerning variable annuity sales practice issues.
In particular, FINRA has targeted brokers recommending unsuitable VAs, in the first instance, as well as recommending the sale of one VA for another in order to generate commissions (a practice akin to churning, and commonly referred to as “switching”). According to publicly available information through FINRA, Ms. Walker has three prior customer complaints, each of which resulted in a settlement. Most recently, in March 2016, a customer initiated a dispute against Ms. Walker, alleging “… unauthorized sales of various stocks, unauthorized and unsuitable purchases of variable annuities and unauthorized mutual fund switches between June 2014 and June 2015.” That FINRA proceeding alleged damages of $208,764 and ultimately settled for $175,000.