NationsBank Corp. claimed victory Thursday after a regulatory panel ruled its securities arm did not err in firing three Florida brokers who complained they were forced to use hard-sell tactics.

NationsSecurities, Charlotte, N.C., was not fined or in any other way punished, though it did come in for some criticism of its practices.

It was ordered to pay $97,800 in fees to pay for the hearings and to rehire one of the three brokers, David A. Cray, of Largo, Fla., according to the report of a three-person panel acting on behalf of the National Association of Securities Dealers. Mr. Cray was the only one of the three to file a formal written complaint.

The brokers-Robert C. Lewis and Catherine B. Hovis, both of Tampa, and Mr. Cray-had sought a combined $20 million in compensatory damages and $500 million in punitive damages.

John W. Munce, executive vice president for consumer investing at NationsBank, said he was pleased with the ruling. "It shows we're committed to customers' wants and needs. It sends the proper message to all our associates."

The case was one of several in recent years claiming bank broker-dealer units haven't adequately informed customers of investment risks. NationsBank is one of several banks active in investment sales that has faced such lawsuits. The NASD is still drafting rules that would affect how bank securities operations make disclosures.

In its ruling, filed late Wednesday, the NASD criticized NationsBank, saying its practices and proprietary products "were less than adequate to meet industry standards and may have contributed to both the number and severity of customer complaints."

That line will leave banks open to liability, said Tampa lawyer Jonathan L. Alpert, who represented the trio in this case and who has similar cases pending.

"In my view, it's an endorsement that there was something wrong at NationsBank," Mr. Alpert said. But, he conceded, the ruling could have a chilling effect on future cases.

"It isn't going to encourage them (lawsuits) when you don't win money. It's not going to encourage whistle-blowers to come forward, yet the panel said it didn't want to discourage whistle-blowers," he said.

Several in the industry said the ruling could help ward off what it sees as frivolous lawsuits.

"That would send a clear indication that the bank didn't do anything improper, and that's a good thing for the industry," said Joy Montgomery, president, Money Marketing Initiatives, Morristown, N.J.

Mr. Cray, who worked for Nations in 1993-94, has 80 days to decide whether to rejoin Nations. The panel ruled that his firing was not in retaliation for his complaint. He was not awarded back pay or benefits.

"I'm anxious to see what they're going to offer," said Mr. Cray, 43, who is working as an independent broker.

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