On June 16, 2014, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) announced that it fined Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc. $8 million for charging excessive fees relating to the sales of mutual funds in retirement accounts. FINRA also ordered Merrill Lynch to pay $24.4 million in restitution to those customers who had been wrongfully overcharged. The mandated restitution was in addition to the $64 million Merrill Lynch has already paid to compensate disadvantaged investors.
Mutual funds offer several different classes of shares. Each class has separate and distinct sales charges and fees. Generally, Class A shares have the lowest fees as compared to Class B and Class C. Class A shares, however, charge customers an upfront sales charge. This initial sales charge, however, is usually waived for retirement accounts, with some funds also waiving these fees for charities.
Merrill Lynch’s retail platform offers a variety of different mutual funds. Most of those funds explicitly offered to waive the upfront sales charges and disclosed those waivers in their respective prospectuses. According to FINRA, despite these disclosures, Merrill Lynch did not actually waive the sales charges many times since at least January 2006. On various occasions, Merrill Lynch charged the full sales charges to certain customers who qualified for the waiver. In doing so, Merrill Lynch allegedly caused nearly 41,000 small business retirement plan accounts and 6,800 charities and 403(b) retirement accounts for ministers and public school employees to pay sales charges when purchasing Class A shares. Those that did not want to pay the fee for the Class A shares were forced to purchase other share classes that needlessly exposed them to greater ongoing costs and fees. According to FINRA, Merrill Lynch became aware of the fact that its small business retirement plan customers were being overcharged, but yet they continued to sell the costly mutual fund shares and never reported the issue to FINRA for over five years.
In handing down the fine, Brad Bennett, FINRA’s Executive Vice President and Chief of Enforcement explained that “Merrill Lynch failed to offer available waivers to customers, including small business retirement accounts and charitable organizations. FINRA’s commitment to investor protection is highlighted by the significant restitution component of this settlement, which reinforces that investors must be able to trust that their brokerage firm will offer the lowest-cost share classes available to them. When firms fail to do so, we will take appropriate action.”
According to FINRA, Merrill Lynch failed to address or provide any meaningful guidance with respect to mutual fund sales charge waivers. Moreover, even after learning of the overcharges, Merrill Lynch still relied on its financial advisors to waive the charges but failed to properly supervise the sales of these products and never notified its financial advisors that there were lower cost funds available.
The attorneys at Gana Weinstein LLP are experienced in handling cases involving unsuitable sales of mutual funds and other broker misconduct. Call today to schedule of a free consultation.