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.
VAs are very complex financial products that typically charge significant commissions and fees. When a financial advisor sells a VA, they will usually receive a sizeable commission, ranging anywhere from 3-7%. Additionally, the VA contract carries various fees, such as a mortality expense (in connection with the contract’s death benefit), investment expenses associated with the sub-accounts holding securities, and administrative expenses on the hybrid security / insurance product.
Before recommending an investment product, applicable rules and regulations mandate that a financial advisor must first conduct a suitability analysis in order to determine whether the product best meets the investor’s stated objectives and profile. Moreover, under applicable industry rules and regulations, brokerage firms like NEXT Financial and Commonwealth Financial are charged with supervising their registered representatives.
The attorneys at Law Office of Christopher J. Gray, P.C. have significant experience in recovering funds on behalf of investors who have suffered losses due to a range of misconduct, including cases involving variable annuities. Investors may be able to recover their losses in FINRA arbitration. Investors may contact our office at (866) 966-9598 or firstname.lastname@example.org for a no-cost, confidential consultation.