An increasing issue in investment fraud cases is the liability of commercial banks for aiding and abetting fraud by an investment advisory firm that engages in fraud and then goes defunct. Such firms typically house their investment clients’ accounts with an independent broker dealer clearing firm that clears or processes the trading activity of the advisor. Cases against the clearing firm are typically resolved in arbitration at FINRA, and are subject to strong legal defenses based on claims of limited or nonexistent obligations of the clearing firm to the investor. Proof of the clearing firm’s knowledge and participation or knowing assistance in the fraud can sometimes be difficult, and what if the clearing firm itself has minimal assets? Another avenue to explore is the liability of the commercial bank that housed the non-investment bank accounts of the investment advisor. In the context of Ponzi schemes, such as Madoff, court cases have been brought with mixed results. But there are other forms of advisor misconduct that can implicate the bank as well.
When the nature of the fraud is outright theft or diversion of investor funds by the advisor this can occur through improper use by the advisor of its bank accounts. For example, the advisor may keep a bank account in its name and deposit customer funds into it, through various means, including having the check made out to the advisor “for the benefit of ” or “FBO” the investor. After the funds are deposited in the bank account in the name of the advisor it can often readily be stolen or diverted from the account by the advisor. Traditionally, bank laws have been structured to protect the banks from liability for routine check processing functions absent proof of aiding and abetting fraud. In the check processing part of the bank, until relatively recently, there would ordinary be little evidence of knowledge by the bank of wrongdoing. However, with the advent of strict anti-money laundering laws and regulations (AML), banks must now monitor for and report suspicious activity. Thus, improper activity by the advisor of the nature described above should be flagged by the bank’s own surveillance system. If the “red flags” of wrongful activity by the advisor in its bank accounts are disregarded by the bank, this can constitute evidence of the bank’s knowledge of and responsibility for the fraudulent activity. Expect to see more court cases being filed against commercial banks for investor losses stemming from fraudulent activity of investment advisors who manipulate their commercial bank accounts to cheat investors.