Keyword: Federal securities laws

Power of the Peirce: SEC Commissioner Spends Some of Her Influence on Trying to Help Crypto Network Developers

SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce continues to be one of the most vocal persons in leadership positions at federal regulators who are promoting innovation in digital currency and the blockchain. On February 6th, she unveiled Proposed Securities Act Rule 195 – Time-limited Exemption for Tokens, a rule proposal for a safe harbor that would provide regulatory relief under the federal securities laws for developers attempting to build functioning token networks. Her proposal is a step in the right direction to address one of the greatest challenges token network projects face.

As explained by the Commissioner, in the course of building a functioning network, developers must get tokens into the hands of other persons. These efforts run the risk of violating the U.S. securities laws regulating offers and sales, and the trading of, investment contract securities under the Howey test. Thus, she stated, the SEC has created a “regulatory Catch 22.” The Proposed Rule addresses this issue head-on by providing a three-year period during which an Initial Development Team can build their network and distribute tokens to persons who will use the network without concern that these efforts will be deemed by the SEC to violate the securities laws.

Of course, the Proposed Rule, as conceded by Commissioner Peirce and as discussed below, is a work in progress, and a great deal of work is necessary to address outstanding issues. One overarching issue is the degree to which the Proposed Rule should be prescriptive and thereby decrease the need for development teams to seek no-action relief. However, if overly prescriptive, the Proposed Rule would not be flexible enough to accommodate evolving technological developments and the complex facts that will arise in each case.

The Proposed Rule Would Provide Subjective and Prescriptive Requirements

The Proposed Rule provides Initial Development Teams with a three-year safe harbor from the application of the securities laws, with the exception of its anti-fraud provisions. In order to be covered by the safe harbor, five conditions would have to be met:

  1. The Initial Development Team must intend for the network to reach “Network Maturity,” defined as either decentralization or token functionality – within three years of the first offer and sale of tokens and undertake good faith and reasonable efforts to achieve that goal;
  2. Detailed disclosures pertaining to the token project and the Initial Development Team must be made to the public;
  3. The token must be offered or sold for the purpose of facilitating access to, participation on, or the development of the network;
  4. The Initial Development Team must intend to and undertake good faith and reasonable efforts to create liquidity for users; and
  5. The Initial Development Team must file a Notice of Reliance with the SEC.

The safe harbor conditions incorporate elements that are both subjective and prescriptive. The first and third conditions are principle-based and highly subjective, and without further regulatory guidance or authoritative precedent, it is unclear how the SEC would determine if they are being complied with. Additional guidance regarding the definition of “Network Maturity,” particularly in the form of hypotheticals and Q&A’s, would help provide clarity. Thus far, there are few concrete examples, beyond Bitcoin and Ethereum – which appear to have passed the SEC’s muster – to which developers can refer to understand the considerations relied upon by the SEC in determining whether a token is not deemed to be a security.

The second and fifth requirements are prescriptive. The disclosure requirements are intended to address information asymmetries between token issuers and purchasers. However, given that the anti-fraud provisions of the securities laws remain in place, it is not self-evident that an overlay of specific disclosure requirements is necessary.

As proposed, the notice requirement presents potential challenges to Initial Development Teams, particularly in the case of its applicability to tokens previously sold in compliance with the securities laws. It is uncertain as to the remedial actions that would be required, and what fines or penalties might be imposed, if the requirements of the Proposed Rule are not satisfied in whole or in part. Also, what would happen at the end of the three-year period if a network has not reached Network Maturity, e.g., the Proposed Rule does not provide a mechanism whereby the development team can request an extension of the safe harbor period and how such a request would be processed.

Until it is Enacted, the Rule Will Not Provide Industry Relief

Since the Proposed Rule is not binding on the Commission, SEC enforcement actions can and will continue to be prosecuted without regard to the Proposed Rule; attempted compliance with the Proposed Rule will not serve as a defense to an enforcement action. At the same time, the elements of the Proposed Rule can and should inform discussions between the Staff and development teams. In this regard, the specific disclosure requirements of the second condition may, in the short term, have the greatest impact, as they might serve as a ready checklist for statements by development teams and counterparties in connection with the development of their networks.

As positive a development as is the Proposed Rule Proposal, it is only the preliminary proposal of one Commissioner and the adoption of a proposal such as this one is subject to a rigorous vetting process by the SEC. Therefore, its future is uncertain.

They Did It for the Gram: SEC and Telegram File Dueling Expert Reports

The battle in federal court between the SEC and Telegram continues to progress at breakneck speed. The SEC commenced its action less than four months ago, on October 11, 2019, by seeking a temporary restraining order against Telegram Group Inc. and TON Issuer Inc. (collectively, “Telegram”). That same day, Judge Castel in the Southern District of New York granted the SEC’s TRO request and ordered expedited discovery. Months of intensive discovery ensued that culminated with both parties filing cross motions for summary judgment on January 15, 2020.

At the center of the dispute is whether issuers of digital tokens can avoid registering their sale with the SEC by issuing them pursuant to “SAFTs,” or Simple Agreements for Future Delivery. SAFTs are commercial instruments used to convey rights to digital tokens to sophisticated investors prior to the development of the functionality of the platform on which the tokens are designed to operate. Issuers usually treat SAFTs as securities and offer and sell them pursuant to the exemption from registration in Rule 506(c) of Regulation D under the Securities Act of 1933. The digital tokens are later issued pursuant to the SAFTs once the platform for which the tokens were designed to use is “fully functional.” The theory is that once use-cases exist for the tokens, they no longer constitute securities, but rather utility tokens that can be distributed as commodities or currency without being subject to regulation as securities by the SEC. The SEC action against Telegram based upon its SAFTs and intended issuance of Grams is the first litigated case to contest that theory.

According to the SEC, from January 2018 to March 2018 Telegram entered into SAFTs with sophisticated investors for the future delivery of Grams. Grams have not yet been delivered. In its TRO motion, the SEC argued that the Grams were securities at the time the SAFTs were executed and the temporal separation between the signing of the SAFTs and delivery of the Grams upon the launch of the fully functional Telegram platform (the “TON Blockchain”) is immaterial and does not change the nature of the Grams themselves. The SEC further argued that upon delivery of the Grams to the SAFT investors, those investors will be able to resell the Grams without restrictions. “Once these resales occur, Telegram will have completed its unregistered offering” for which no exemption from registration exists.

In opposition, Telegram argued that the Grams must be separately analyzed from the SAFTs under the federal securities laws. Telegram contended that the Grams are not securities because they “do not exist and may never exist.” Rather, under the SAFTs, Telegram represented that it will create and distribute Grams only upon the launch of a “fully functional TON Blockchain,” which will provide Gram’s use-cases; that is, once the TON Blockchain is launched, Grams will be able to be used for, among other things, payment for physical and digital products and services, commission paid to TON validators for processing transactions and smart contracts, voting on parameters of the protocol, and payment for services provided by third-party applications on the TON Blockchain.

The SEC is expending significant resources in this case. It recently submitted to the Court expert opinions to support its position that token sales are offerings of securities subject to its regulation. Together, these opinions are intended to buttress the SEC’s argument that Telegram’s offering satisfied the Howey test and qualified for no exemption from registration:

  • A financial economist at the SEC’s Division of Economic and Risk Analysis, Carmen A. Taveras, Ph.D., provided an opinion that the price at which Grams are sold increases exponentially over time and is a function of the total number of Grams in circulation. As a result, the price at which purchasers who bought Grams pursuant to the SAFTs is significantly discounted to the price at which Grams will be available for purchase by subsequent buyers. The opinion also disputed Telegram’s representation in promotional materials that it will maintain price stability following the launch of the TON Blockchain by setting up a “TON Reserve” to strategically buy and sell Grams. Taveras concluded that the TON Reserve’s ability to buy and sell Grams would likely have a limited effect on curbing sudden spikes and dips in the price of Grams.
  • A blockchain data scientist in private practice, Patrick B. Doody, opined that while it is reasonable for private placement purchasers to buy Grams expecting to profit by selling them in the secondary market, Grams are unlikely to attract investors seeking a “realistic currency option to buy goods and services.” Telegram’s promotional materials appealed to potential investors seeking to profit through resales, while providing short shrift to factors that would enhance Grams’ viability as a currency, including fraud prevention, theft, integration with existing banking relationships, compliance with financial regulations, and price stability such as that which can be achieved by pegging the price of Grams to a fiat currency.
  • An expert in the field of computer science at Brown University, Maurice P. Herlihy, Ph.D., opined that the publicly released version of the TON Blockchain code lacks critical components that would be required in a fully developed and running system, and users cannot evaluate the security and effectiveness of the TON Blockchain in its current state. Moreover, the TON Blockchain is not yet mature enough to support the suite of services described in TON public documents.

Taken together, the SEC’s experts took the position that (1) Telegram SAFT investors reasonably expected to profit from Telegram’s efforts to develop the TON Network, and (2) that the current state of the TON Network reveals it is not yet mature enough to support the suite of services promised by TON’s public documents.

Telegram also retained its own expert, Stephen McKeon, who holds a Ph.D. in management with a finance focus and a master’s degree in economics. McKeon’s expert report rebuts the SEC’s experts by opining that (1) the profit expectations of SAFT investors is independent from, and not relevant to, the expectations of purchasers following the TON Blockchain launch, and (2) that most TON Network “components are complete or nearing their completion and will be fully available to the TON blockchain users at the launch of the mainnet.”

As further evidenced by the filing of amicus briefs by the Chamber of Digital Commerce and the Blockchain Association, the stakes for the industry in this case are high.

SEC Settles with BCOT on Alleged Violations of the Securities Act

On December 18, 2019, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced settled charges against blockchain technology company Blockchain of Things Inc. (BCOT) for conducting an unregistered initial coin offering (ICO) of digital tokens. BCOT raised nearly $13 million to develop and implement its business plans, including developing its blockchain-based technology and platform, referred to as the “Catenis Enterprise” or “Catenis Services” (collectively, “Catenis”).

BCOT conducted the ICO from December 2017 through July 2018 (the “Offering Period”), after the SEC had warned in its DAO Report of Investigation that ICOs can be securities offerings. The settlement alleged that the BCOT Tokens were securities and that they were offered and sold in violation of Section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933 because BCOT did not register its ICO thereunder, nor did it qualify for an exemption from its registration requirements.

With respect to the status of the BCOT Tokens as “securities” under the federal securities laws, the SEC brushed aside the fact that purchasers of the BCOT Tokens were required to represent that “they were not purchasing BCOT Tokens for ‘future appreciation’ or ‘investment or speculative purpose[s].’” Rather, the SEC focused on statements in the offering documents that it found nevertheless would lead purchasers to “reasonably have expected that BCOT and its agents would expend significant efforts to develop [its] platform . . . increasing the value of their BCOT Tokens.”

Factors the SEC found also weighed in favor of BCOT Tokens being securities include:

(i)   the BCOT platform was not fully functional during the Offering Period, i.e., during the Offering Period Catenis was functioning only in a beta mode;

(ii)   BCOT reserved the right to adjust the price of Catenis Services in its discretion, “based upon its operating costs and market forces”; and

(iii)  the BTOC Tokens “were designed to be freely transferrable upon issuance and delivery, with no restrictions on transfer.”

The remedies agreed to in the BCOT settlement include: (i) the payment of a monetary penalty of $250,000; (ii) the registration by BTOC of the BCOT Tokens as a class of securities under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and compliance with the reporting requirements thereunder; and (iii) implementation of a protocol under which (x) purchasers of the BTOC Tokens during the Offering Period are notified of their potential claims under the Securities Act “to recover the consideration paid for such securities with interest thereon, less the amount of any income received thereon,” and (y) all payments that BTOC deems to be due and adequately substantiated are made.

The BCOT settlement is similar to the enforcement actions settled by the SEC with Gladius Network LLC on February 20, 2019, and CarrierEQ, Inc. (d/b/a Airfox) and Paragon Coin, Inc., each on November 16, 2018. As in the case of the Gladius settlement, the BTOC settlement provides explicitly for the possibility that BTOC might in the future renew its argument that the BCOT Tokens are not securities under the Exchange Act and, therefore, BTOC should not be required to maintain the registration of its Tokens thereunder. None of these enforcement actions included allegations of fraud. However, the Gladius settlement is distinguishable in that the company self-reported its violations and was not required to pay a monetary penalty.

It is also noteworthy that, in conjunction with the BTOC settlement, the SEC issued an order to BTOC under Rule 506(d)(2)(ii) of the Securities Act granting a waiver of the Rule 506(d)(1)(v)(B) disqualification provision thereunder. We are not aware of similar relief having been requested or granted to Gladius, AirFox or Paragon, though it was granted in conjunction with the BlockOne/EOS settlement that was entered on September 30, 2019.

The BTOC settlement clearly shows that the SEC is still applying a strict view with regard to violations of Section 5 of the Securities Act while at the same time showing slightly more flexibility in its remedies to those Section 5 violations.

SEC Division of Enforcement 2019 Annual Report Shows Cryptocurrency Is Still Under the Microscope

The SEC Division of Enforcement’s 2019 Annual Report, released earlier this month, shows a continuing focus on activities involving blockchain and cryptocurrency, and its website shows an increase in cases since last fiscal year. The Annual Report provides an overview of the SEC’s enforcement activities during FY 2019, highlighting enforcement priorities and trends, noteworthy actions, and enforcement challenges. The SEC’s attention to enforcing the securities laws in the blockchain and cryptocurrency space features prominently in the Annual Report, securing special attention both in the introductory message from Division Co-Directors Stephanie Avakian and Steven Peikin, and as one of two “initiatives and areas of focus in Fiscal Year 2019” (alongside the SEC’s traditional focus on protecting retail investors).

But while Co-Directors Avakian and Peikin state that the Division’s “activities in the digital asset space matured and expanded” in 2019, the nature of its enforcement priorities as detailed in the 2019 Annual Report is not markedly different from the previous year. To be sure, the 2019 Annual Report highlights some of the more high-profile enforcement actions in the industry, such as the SEC’s ongoing case against Kik Interactive for allegedly conducted an illegal $100 million securities offering in 2017. And, as reported on the SEC website, the number of enforcement actions the SEC designates as relating to “Digital Assets/Initial Coin Offerings” has seen an uptick since last year (with 13 filed in FY 2018, and 21 in FY 2019).

One thing that the 2019 Annual Report more clearly highlights about the SEC’s activities this year is the Division of Enforcement’s attention to non-fraud violations related to cryptocurrencies. For example, the SEC charged the founder of a digital asset trading platform for operating as an unregistered national securities exchange, and charged an “ICO Incubator” and its founder for acting as an unregistered broker-dealer and selling unregistered digital asset securities. And for the first time, the SEC filed charges for the unlawful promotion of ICOs (against boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. and music producer DJ Khaled).

With cryptocurrencies being one of the SEC’s “initiatives and areas of focus” and the fact that the Division’s Cyber Unit only became fully operational in Fiscal Year 2018, the volume of enforcement actions in this space may well continue to increase in FY 2020. Even if not, participants in the industry should be mindful that the SEC is still scrutinizing cryptocurrency activities and is able and willing to penalize non-fraud violations of the securities laws. As Co-Directors Avakian and Peikin noted in the Report: “Collectively, these actions send the clear message that, if a product is a security, regardless of the label attached to it, those who issue, promote, or provide a platform for buying and selling that security must comply with the investor protection requirements of the federal securities laws.”

Reading the Blockchain Tea Leaves: Reconciling Telegram and Block.one

The juxtaposition of two recent SEC enforcement actions against token issuers may shed some light on the regulator’s evolving regulatory framework.

On October 11, 2019, the SEC won a motion for a temporary restraining order from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against Telegram Group Inc., the creator of Messenger, an encrypted messaging application, to halt its planned $1.7 billion “Gram” token distribution and follow-on sale. The SEC’s action, which alleged that the planned offering of Grams would violate the registration requirements of Sections 5(a) and 5(c) of the Securities Act of 1933, put a halt to a long-running development project and more than 18 months of continued interaction with the SEC.

The SEC’s stance against Telegram stands in stark contrast to its settlement on September 30, 2019, with Block.one, the creator of the EOSIO blockchain protocol. Block.one conducted a year-long initial coin offering that raised a record $4 billion in 2017 and 2018. Block.one’s ICO utilized a dual-token structure: over the course of the ICO, Block.one sold 900 million digital assets (“ERC 20 tokens”) to purchasers. These tokens were freely transferable while the ICO was ongoing. At the end of the ICO, the ERC-20 tokens became nontransferable and, upon the subsequent launch of the EOSIO blockchain, holders of the ERC-20 tokens were entitled to receive the native EOS token. Block.one settled the SEC’s claims against it by agreeing to pay a monetary penalty of $24 million. Unlike what we have seen in similar settlements, the SEC did not require rescission of the sale of the ERC-20 tokens, which were designated securities, or the EOS tokens, which received no mention in the cease-and-desist order. The EOSIO blockchain protocol remains live, and EOS tokens remain in circulation. The SEC also explicitly granted a “bad actor” waiver under Regulation D permitting the Company to continue fundraising and capital formation in the United States.

The SEC’s seemingly distinct approaches to Block.one’s and Telegram’s offerings have left the industry scratching its collective head. What is most odd is the SEC’s decision in the case of Telegram to seek emergency relief, a remedy typically reserved for ongoing frauds, which is not alleged here. In lieu of a public explanation from the SEC, reviewing the differences between the two offerings may be the only way to extract guidance from these actions. There is, however, no way of knowing which differences actually had an impact on the results. Nevertheless, below we discuss some of the differences.

Token Use Case

The SEC’s disparate treatment of Telegram and Block.one may come down to the differences in the nature, purpose and design of their technologies. The SEC has given indications (although not official guidance) that a critical part of the Howey analysis as to whether a token is a security is if purchasers are dependent on a centralized group of people to drive its value; if the developer community of a blockchain technology is decentralized enough, the token may fall outside of Howey.

The Gram may have always been doomed to fail this test because of the planned integration with Messenger, which is a proprietary product. The integration with Messenger was supposed to be a significant driver of the Gram’s value, and the development of Messenger is entirely dependent on Telegram.

In contrast, the EOS tokens and the EOSIO blockchain protocol are designed and meant to power a smart contract platform on top of which other developers may build. Perhaps Block.one’s intention to build a decentralized platform resembling Ether helped it find favor with the SEC.

Manner of Token Sale

Telegram sold “Gram Purchase Agreements” to sophisticated purchasers that promised Grams upon the launch of Telegram’s TON blockchain. No Grams were to be distributed until the launch of the blockchain, presumably because Telegram held the view that if Grams were not distributed until the blockchain was live it might escape the “efforts of others” Howey prong. Clearly, this wasn’t enough to satisfy the SEC.

Block.one’s dual-token structure – issuing ERC-20 tokens first, which entitled holders to EOS tokens once the native EOSIO platform launched – gave the SEC the opportunity to take action against the ERC-20 tokens and remain silent on EOS. It is questionable whether this move is justified by strict legal analysis: the ERC-20 tokens were sold in conjunction with “Token Purchase Agreements” that made it clear to purchasers they were being sold the right to receive EOS tokens. Furthermore, until EOSIO launched, the future value of those EOS tokens was dependent on Block.one. Given the manner of sale, it is unclear why EOS received the apparent favorable treatment over Grams.

Participants in Sale and Availability of Tokens on Secondary Markets

In their official documents, the SEC presented two distinctly different attitudes towards the availability of a token on secondary markets accessible to U.S. persons. For Telegram, such availability justified the SEC in shutting down its entire operation, while for Block.one the availability only provoked a slight admonition, without enjoining the offering.

Block.one made some efforts to prevent U.S. customers from participating in the ICO: it blocked U.S.-based IP addresses and required purchasers to sign a contract that included a provision stating that any purchase by a U.S. person rendered the contract null and void. However, despite those measures, U.S. persons still succeeded in participating in the ICO; moreover, Block.one made efforts that could be viewed as conditioning the U.S. market, including participating in blockchain conferences and advertising EOSIO on a billboard in Times Square. Notably, too, the ERC-20 tokens were widely traded and available for purchase by U.S. persons on secondary markets. Block.one took no steps to prevent this.

In contrast, the fact that Telegram’s tokens would be available to U.S. purchasers on secondary markets drove the SEC’s argument that a TRO and preliminary injunction were necessary, regardless of the fact that Telegram limited the sale of Gram purchase agreements to sophisticated investors and that upon the distribution of Grams and the sale to the public the Telegram network would be fully functional.

Takeaways

The SEC’s distinctly different treatment of Telegram and Block.one provides insight into the SEC’s perspective on what sorts of tokens are securities, and which are not. It appears that the Gram’s integration into Telegram’s proprietary product – and therefore its dependence on Telegram – was critical to the SEC’s analysis. The analogous nature of EOS to Ether probably led to it not being designated a security. However, both ICOs were deemed in violation of securities laws, so neither should serve as a safe harbor for others. Furthermore, there is still no clear legal path to launching a token like EOS.

SEC’s Light Touch: An ICO Settlement Without a Penalty

In another first for the digital token industry, on February 20 the SEC announced a settlement involving a self-reported unregistered initial coin offering (ICO) without imposing a penalty. Like its earlier settlements with AirFox and Paragon, the SEC required Gladius Network LLC to repay investors and register its GLA tokens as securities. This time, however, in a sign that the SEC is willing to work with companies trying to come into compliance, the SEC did not impose a monetary penalty due to the company’s “decision to self-report and its extensive cooperation with the staff’s subsequent investigation.”

Having just completed their freshman year at the University of Maryland College Park in 2017, Max Niebylski, Alex Godwin, and Marcelo McAndrew during their summer break founded Gladius as a cyber security company dedicated to ending Distributed Denial of Service attacks. On September 27, 2017 Gladius released a White Paper, and between October 13, 2017 and December 13, 2017 it raised a total of $12.7 million dollars through the sale of GLA tokens.

In an apparent attempt to maneuver around the securities laws and avail itself of the as-yet-untested utility token defense – which attempts to show that the tokens did not represent an investment contract but rather, like it sounds, something with utility for the purchaser – Gladius required participants in the ICO to warrant that they were purchasing GLA tokens “solely for the purpose of accessing Services . . . [and not for] any investment, speculative or other financial purposes.” Nevertheless, in the summer of 2018 Gladius self-reported the unregistered sale of GLA tokens to the SEC’s Division of Enforcement.

The SEC, in the settlement order, included a one-sentence Howey analysis, finding that the sale of GLA tokens met the factors of Howey because “[a] purchaser in the offering of GLA Tokens would have had a reasonable expectation of obtaining a future profit based upon Gladius’s efforts to create a ‘marketplace’ using the proceeds from the sale of GLA Tokens and to provide investors with liquidity by making GLA Tokens tradeable on secondary markets.”

Although the Company will have to comply with notice and reporting requirements under the federal securities laws, the only ordered monetary relief is the requirement that the Company refund GLA token purchases made between September 2017 and December 2017 pursuant to a claims process similar to what the SEC devised for the AirFox and Paragon settlements. Given the infrequency with which investors actually file claims, it is unlikely that the Company will end up refunding the full $12.7 million-dollar obligation it faces.

In another notable deviation from the AirFox and Paragon settlements, the SEC directed Gladius to provide the Commission advance notice if it planned to file a Form 15 to terminate its registration pursuant to Rule 12g-4 under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 on the grounds that the GLA Tokens no longer constitute a “class of securities.” This seemingly superfluous requirement could be the SEC’s way of signaling to the industry that token issuances that remain below the monetary and holder threshold requirements of Rule 12g-4 will not run afoul of securities laws.

All told, the Gladius settlement is proof that the SEC continues to show leniency to token issuers who violated the securities laws if they act in good faith and come into compliance.

Blockvest II: Court Reverses Itself and Grants the SEC a Preliminary Injunction in the Face of Manifest Fraud

As we previously discussed, the SEC suffered a rare defeat in Securities and Exchange Commission v. Blockvest, LLC et al. on November 27, when Judge Curiel of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California issued a denial (the “November Order”) of its motion for a preliminary injunction against Defendants’ future violations of Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933 (“Section 17(a)”), despite manifest evidence of fraudulent representations in the Defendants’ website postings. The November Order attracted intense scrutiny and on December 17, the SEC moved for partial reconsideration of the November Order. Last week, on February 14, the court granted, in part, the SEC’s motion for reconsideration (the “February Order” and, together with the November Order, the “Orders”), relying on purported new evidence and an argument that the court apparently had overlooked. It is fair to ask whether the new evidence motivated the reversal.

As Judge Curiel recited, under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a motion for reconsideration is appropriate, among other reasons, if the district court is “presented with newly discovered evidence.” Judge Curiel stated that the standard for granting a preliminary injunction requires the SEC to show: “(1) a prima facie case of previous violations of federal securities laws, and (2) a reasonable likelihood that the wrong will be repeated.” Based upon these standards, the court concluded that reconsideration in this case was warranted “based upon a prima facie showing of Defendants’ past securities violation and newly developed evidence which support the conclusion that there is a reasonable likelihood of future violations.” However, it is not clear what “newly developed evidence” formed the basis for this conclusion.

In applying the Howey test to the tokens offered by Blockvest, the court agreed with the SEC that “the Howey test is unquestionably an objective one.” The court disputed the SEC’s assertion that in the November Order the court had applied a “subjective test” by relying solely on the beliefs of some individual investors. Rather, the court stated that it had “objectively inquire[d] into the ‘terms of promotional materials, information, economic inducements or oral representations at the seminars, or in other words, an inquiry into the ‘character of the instrument or transaction offered’ to the ‘purchasers.’”

The court emphasized that in the November Order it had denied the motion for a preliminary injunction “because there were disputed factual issues as to the nature of the investment offered to alleged investors.” Nonetheless, the court acknowledged that in denying the SEC’s motion for a preliminary injunction, it did not “directly address” an alternate theory originally presented by the SEC that the promotional materials presented on Defendants’ website, in the whitepaper posted online, and on social media accounts concerning the ICO of the token constituted an offer of unregistered securities that contained materially false statements and therefore violated Section 17(a). The court again applied the Howey test to find that the tokens being offered were securities. The court also rejected the defendants’ arguments that applied state law to interpret “offer” narrowly to require a manifestation of an intent to be bound, finding that “offer” is broadly defined under the securities laws.

The court also found that the SEC had satisfied the required showing that there is a reasonable likelihood of future violations, one of the elements of injunctive relief. In support of its ruling, the court cited the misrepresentations in Defendants’ website postings that had been detailed in the November Order and which were manifestly fraudulent. Based upon this information, addressed by the SEC in supplemental briefing, the court granted partial reconsideration of the November Order.

Also factored into the February Order were the findings that defense counsel had moved to withdraw as counsel because “the firm found it necessary to terminate representation due to, inter alia, Defendants instructing counsel to file certain documents that counsel could not certify under Rules of Civil Procedures 11… and Defendants have yet to find substitute counsel.” The court stated its concerns that Defendants would resume their prior alleged fraudulent conduct, in light of its order allowing defense counsel to withdraw.

Given the severity of the fraudulent representations as alleged in the SEC’s action, which included false claims of approval by federal regulators and a wholly fabricated federal agency, it was surprising that the court had originally denied the SEC’s request for a preliminary injunction; the need to shut down ongoing fraud and protect investors often drives a court’s rulings on requests for interim relief in these cases. It appears that in reversing itself, the court rethought its reasoning based on the information and arguments that the SEC had originally presented. In one telling ruling in the new decision, the court declined to accept new arguments raised by defendants in opposition to the motion for reconsideration because they had not previously raised them. It appears that the SEC can shrug off its original loss and continue to seek to shut down this alleged fraud with all the power of the federal securities laws.

SEC and FINRA Confirm Digital Assets a 2019 Examination Priority

Recently, the Staffs of the SEC and FINRA announced their annual examination and regulatory priorities: the SEC’s Office of Compliance, Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) issued its 2019 Examination Priorities just before its employees were sent home on furlough, and FINRA issued its 2019 Risk Monitoring and Examination Priorities Letter last week, several weeks later than its usual first-of-the-year release. The high points and overlap of the two releases are covered in an Orrick Client Alert, but for purposes of On the Chain, we will briefly discuss the two regulators’ not-surprising designation of digital currency as one of their priorities.

The priorities letters clearly telegraph both regulators’ intentions to examine firms’ participation in the digital assets marketplace. OCIE flags digital assets as a concern because of the market’s significant growth and risks. OCIE indicates that it will issue high-level inquiries designed first to identify market participants offering, selling, trading, and managing these assets, or considering or actively seeking to offer these products. Once it identifies those participants, OCIE will then assess the extent of their activities and examine firms focused on “portfolio management of digital assets, trading, safety of client funds and assets, pricing of client portfolios, compliance, and internal controls.”

For its part, FINRA treats digital assets under the heading of “Operational Risks,” and encourages firms to notify it if they plan to engage in activities related to digital assets, even, curiously, “where a membership application is not required.” In this context, FINRA references its Regulation Notice 18-20, July 6, 2018, which is headlined “FINRA Encourages Firms to Notify FIRNA If They Engage in Activities Related to Digital Assets.” These initiatives provide a partial explanation for the long-expected delays in FINRA granting member firms explicit authority to effect transactions in digital assets.

FINRA also states its intention to review these activities and assess firms’ compliance with applicable securities laws and regulations and related supervisory, compliance and operational controls to mitigate the risks associated with such activities. FINRA states that it will look at whether firms have implemented adequate controls and supervision over compliance with rules related to the marketing, sale, execution, control, clearance, recordkeeping and valuation of digital assets, as well as AML/Bank Secrecy Act rules and regulations. These issues are addressed in detail in FINRA’s January 2017 report on “Distributed Ledger Technology: Implications of Blockchain for the Securities Industry.”

The SEC and FINRA clearly will seek to align their concerns about firms participating in the digital asset markets and the compliance and supervision standards to which they will hold them. The regulators’ jurisdiction overlaps, but the SEC’s is broader – it extends to all issuers, while FINRA would be limited only to those issuers that are member broker-dealer firms. The SEC also has jurisdiction over investment advisers, while FINRA again is limited to those advisers who are members. And because the SEC effectively owns the definition of security, FINRA also states its intention to coordinate closely with the SEC in considering how firms determine whether a particular digital asset is a security. At the same time, FINRA has jurisdiction over any activities engaged in by broker-dealers with respect to its customers, even those that do not involve a security, meaning that a member firm’s transactions in or custody of, for example, bitcoin – declared by the SEC not to be a security – still will implicate FINRA’s oversight.

The regulators’ coordination on their digital currency reviews will likely not diminish regulatory attention, but at least it will provide industry participants some comfort that coordinated thought is being given to how best to regulate this emerging area.

Transactors in Digital Tokens – New Bill Offers Hope

On December 20, 2018, Representatives Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) and Darren Soto (D-Fla) offered some early holiday hope to digital token issuers by introducing the “Token Taxonomy Act” (the TTA). If passed, the TTA would exclude “digital tokens” from the federal securities laws and would undoubtedly have profound effects for the U.S. digital token economy. The TTA is an ambitious piece of legislation that faces an uncertain future. Nevertheless, Representatives Davidson and Soto should be commended for attempting to provide some regulatory relief and certainty to an industry that has been yearning for it.

In addition to exempting digital tokens from the securities laws, the TTA would amend the Internal Revenue Code and classify the exchange of digital tokens as like-kind exchanges under Section 1031, and allow digital tokens to be held by retirement accounts.

The TTA would also amend language in the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 and the Investment Company Act of 1940 so that state-regulated trust companies, which include broker dealers, investment advisors and investment companies, would be able to hold digital assets for customers.

According to the TTA’s authors, the intention behind the bill is to provide much-needed regulatory certainty to digital token issuers and to ensure the U.S. remains competitive against other countries like Switzerland, where blockchain startups are thriving.

However, the TTA’s benefits are hypothetical at this point, since it is likely to be opposed by the SEC. On November 30, 2018, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton opined at a New York Times-hosted event that SEC rules were made by “geniuses” and “have stood the test of time.” He stated that he did not foresee changing rules “just to fit a technology.” While he was not referring specifically to the TTA, these comments indicate an unwillingness by the SEC to change its longstanding rules to accommodate a nascent technology.

Even if the bill is passed, it would permit the SEC to determine whether a particular digital unit qualifies as a security and therefore is subject to the SEC’s regulation. The SEC thus would have the power to halt an offering and force compliance with the applicable securities laws. The TTA would spare issuers from any penalties if they have acted in good faith and take reasonable steps to cease sales. But with an unclear, and a potentially costly or lengthy, appeals process, the SEC could discourage issuers from taking the risk of attempting to qualify and sell digital tokens from the start. This provision would blunt the intended deregulatory impact of the TTA.

Although its future is uncertain, the TTA shows that there are government leaders that are listening to the concerns of the digital token issuers. If the TTA is introduced in the 116th Congress, it will be a piece of legislation worth tracking. Even if this particular bill is not enacted, it might point the way to other legislation whose passage might provide some regulatory relief to those who transact in digital tokens.

Despite Alleged Fraud, Judge Denies SEC’s Preliminary Injunction Request Based on Howey

Despite evidence of egregious fraud in the marketing of tokens, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California recently held the line against the SEC and denied its request for a preliminary injunction. In doing so, the court reaffirmed that in order for an injunction to be issued, the SEC must make a compelling showing that the tokens qualify as securities under the Howey test.

In Securities and Exchange Commission v. Blockvest, LLC et al., Judge Curiel of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California ruled on November 27, 2018, on a request by the SEC for a preliminary injunction against Blockvest, LLC and its principal Reginald Ringgold. The SEC’s request for a preliminary injunction came six weeks after the court granted a temporary restraining order in the SEC’s favor.

To obtain a preliminary injunction, the SEC bore the burden of showing that Blockvest and Ringgold committed a prima facie case of a securities law violation, and that such violation would likely repeat.  Specifically, the SEC alleged that Blockvest and Ringgold had engaged in an unregistered securities offering when selling proprietary BLV tokens to 32 individuals. The SEC argued that under the Howey test, these tokens qualified as securities because Blockvest and Ringgold engaged in a marketing campaign to induce purchasers to believe that, based on the efforts of Ringgold and Blockvest’s employees, the tokens would appreciate in value. Blockvest’s and Ringgold’s wrong would allegedly repeat because Ringgold demonstrated disregard for the SEC’s enforcement efforts in the days immediately after the initial delivery of its complaint.

Compounding the SEC’s case was the allegedly egregious fraud perpetrated by the Defendants. Ringgold represented that his offering was endorsed by the SEC, CFTC, and Deloitte Touche, as well as a fictional regulatory agency called the “Bitcoin Exchange Commission” that had the same address as the SEC and a seal modelled upon the seal of the SEC.

Despite the strong allegations of fraud, Judge Curiel denied the preliminary injunction because he gave credence to the Defendants’ rebuttals, and because the SEC had failed to make a compelling case. For instance, the court considered Ringgold’s assertion that the alleged 32 token purchasers were simply testers who had no expectation of profit; indeed, the pre-sale program through which the purchasers obtained the tokens had not yet even been cleared by the company’s compliance officer and the website where the purchases allegedly occurred was not operational.

All told, the court found that the SEC could not show that under the Howey test, any purchase based on an expectation of profit had actually occurred.  Likewise, the court concluded that the SEC could not show a reasonable likelihood of repetition of the wrong because no wrong had occurred in the first place, and Ringgold demonstrated intent to comply with securities laws going forward.