The family of a 20-year-old user of the stock trading app Robinhood sued the company Monday, alleging that its “aggressive tactics” and targeting of young, inexperienced investors led to the user’s death by suicide last year.
In a 30-page complaint filed in California's Santa Clara County Superior Court, the family of Alex Kearns cited his last known written words — “How was a 20-year-old with no income able to get assigned almost $1 million worth of leverage?” — and said the Silicon Valley-based company lures users like Kearns into taking big risks with the promise of big profits.
“Though Alex was merely a senior in high school when he opened an account with Robinhood and had little or no income, Robinhood determined he was qualified enough to enter into the world of trading sophisticated financial options,” the document says.
The next year, while Kearns was a freshman at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, he began trading options through the app.
In June 2020, Kearns was notified by the company that his account reflected a negative balance of $730,000, the complaint says. An email from the company cited in the documents say he was required to deposit roughly $178,000 a week later.
The complaint says that Kearns didn’t actually owe the money, because his losses would have been covered by options held in his account. But Kearns believed his family would get stuck with his bill, the complaint says, and Robinhood didn’t respond to his “increasingly desperate pleas for help” — emails that were met with auto-replies.
Kearns died on June 12. The suit, which alleges wrongful death, unfair business practices and negligent infliction of emotional distress, does not specify damages.
In a statement, a Robinhood spokeswoman said the company was a “devastated” by Kearns’ death and said it had made a series of improvements to the app since June, including allowing users to exercise contracts and offering additional guidance and education. The company also added live support for some customers.
The suit comes two months after regulators in Massachusetts accused Robinhood of predatory marketing — a characterization the company has said it rejects — and weeks after a stock market frenzy involving Robinhood and users of a Reddit message board.