Last week Steve Rosenberg on his insightful Boston ERISA Law Blog tells us that Legal Rights That Are Protected In Courts, May Well Be Lost In An Arbitration. Steve comments on a recent Supreme Court case that parties may not contract among themselves for judicial oversight of an arbitration award under the Federal Arbitration Act. He says that

Probably the biggest barrier to arbitration serving as a forum for complicated commercial disputes is that the Federal Arbitration Act effectively provides no substantive oversight of an arbitration ruling, making the arbitrator’s ruling the final decision, and only allows judicial review for the purpose of addressing any serious procedural errors during the course of an arbitration.

But while arbitration is a choice for most parties to a commercial transaction, investors don’t have that option. Virtually all securities firms require investors dealing with them to resolve disputes by mandatory arbitration.

And since the 1987 Supreme Court case (Shearson/American Express v. McMahon) that held mandatory arbitration to be enforceable, the debate as to whether the investor gets a fair shake has raged on. And predictably, the industry says mandatory arbitration is fair while investor advocates claim the process is biased. A process that requires that one of the three arbitrators is affiliated with the securities industry, and the process itself is administered by the NASD rather an entity unaffiliated with the industry.

So how exactly has that worked out for investors? Not well according to a study, Mandatory Arbitration of Securities Disputes A Statistical Analysis of How Claimants Fare, released in June, 2007 by Edward S. O’Neal, Ph.D. and Daniel R. Solin. Their study was a statistical analysis of the results of the mandatory arbitration process during the 1995 – 2004 period.

They assessed almost 14,000 NASD and NYSE arbitration cases and found that claimant win rates and recovery amounts had declined significantly over time, and that claimants fared more poorly in large cases and in cases against larger brokerage firms. They estimated that that the expected recovery before legal fees and expenses in a large case against a top brokerage firm is only 12% of the amount claimed.

They concluded that

There may well be innocent explanations for fact that the chances of an investor recovering significant damages from a major brokerage firm are statistically small in mandatory arbitration. However, our data clearly indicates a decline in both the overall “win” rate and the expected recovery percentage against major brokerage firms, at a time when the misconduct of these firms reached its apex with the analyst fraud scandal.

The study was funded by the authors. Edward S. O’Neal, Ph.D, is a principal with Securities Litigation and Consulting Group, Inc. (SLCG) who completed the work while he was on the faculty at the Babcock Graduate School of Management at Wake Forest University. Daniel R. Solin is a securities arbitration attorney representing investors. He is also a Registered Investment Advisor and Senior Vice President of Index Funds Advisors, Inc..

You can download the complete report here (22 pages, PDF).

Hat tip to James J. Eccleston who publishes the FinancialCounsel blog. Jim heads heads the securities group at Shaheen, Novoselsky, Staat, Filipowski & Eccleston, P.C. (SNSFE), a Chicago-based business law firm.