Barnett Banks Inc. has been hit with a lawsuit alleging that its brokerage unit sold securities in hundreds of unregistered branch offices throughout Florida during the past five years.
The class action, filed Monday in state court in Hillsborough County, alleged that Barnett had violated Florida securities law by selling mutual funds, stocks, and bonds in more than 570 bank branches that were not registered with the state as brokerage locations.
At issue is how the state could oversee securities activities if it was unaware of the locations where they were being conducted, said Jonathan L. Alpert, a partner in the Alpert, Barker & Calcutt law firm in Tampa.
"The state can't regulate what it doesn't know is there," said Mr. Alpert, who filed suit on behalf of a Tampa Bay-area couple. The class action covers investors who bought securities in an unregistered Barnett office during the five years beginning Sept. 16, 1991.
"We'll move for summary judgment because it's such an open-and-shut matter," he said, referring to a procedure that would let the court decide the issue without a trial.
Barnett countered that the suit is unfounded because its 36 branches that serve as principal offices for the banking company's 150 brokers are registered.
The case has "no merit, and we'll oppose it vigorously," a Barnett spokesman said. The company's officials "absolutely believe we've complied with all requirements for registering offices of Barnett Securities Inc.," he said.
That brokers sometimes went to other branches or even nonbank offices would not require each of those places to be registered, a Barnett spokesman said.
"Our brokers, like all brokers, keep appointments at the customer's convenience," he said, "and that could be at their residence, place of business, or a bank branch that's convenient to them."
An analyst at the Florida securities department confirmed that public locations such as restaurants or clients' homes used for occasional meetings would be exempt from registration.
However, he said, exemptions are generally narrowly construed. It is unclear whether the occasional use of bank branch offices owned by a bank holding company, rather than the securities unit itself, would qualify.
If the court finds for the plaintiffs, those who suffered investment losses would qualify to be reimbursed. Customers who suffered no actual losses could choose to liquidate existing positions and get the full amount they originally invested plus any commissions paid.
Mr. Alpert has suits pending that make similar claims against the Florida units of NationsBank Corp. and First Union Corp.