Last week, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) filed its first disciplinary action involving cryptocurrencies, conforming with its stated 2018 goal of monitoring and supervising the largely unregulated cryptocurrency market. FINRA’s actions reflect a long-anticipated and increased scrutiny on entities—including employers—dealing with cryptocurrency.
In the September 11 disciplinary complaint, FINRA alleged that a former Massachusetts broker, Timothy Tilton Ayre, committed securities fraud by avoiding registration requirements and selling an unregistered, cannabis-focused cryptocurrency security called HempCoin. Ayre purchased HempCoin in June 2015 and immediately advertised as “the first minable coin backed by marketable securities.” Ayre transformed the cryptocurrency into a security tied to his company, Rocky Mountain Ayre (“RMTN”), valuing each HempCoin as 0.1 shares of RMTN and trading over the counter. Investors mined over 81 million HempCoins through late 2017. However, Ayre failed to register HempCoin with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”).
FINRA’s action, coupled with recent joint statements by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) and the SEC addressing plans for heightened oversight of virtual currency regulation, reflect potential obstacles entities may face in dealing with cryptocurrency, or blockchain technology more broadly.
Growing start-ups or legacy companies with new industry sectors should be particularly mindful of the novel and transformative legal issues related to these emerging areas. For instance, although blockchain technology is generally expected to make data more secure, employers should continue to monitor their use of this technology for data privacy concerns related to information storage and programs for employment-related decisions. Further, employers should note that cryptocurrency is not currently recognized as legal tender in the United States.
The Federal Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) mandates “payments of the prescribed wages, including [minimum wage and] overtime compensation, in cash or negotiable instrument payable at par.” 29 CFR § 531.27(a). The phrase “payable at par” allows cryptocurrencies to be a lawful method of payment under the FLSA, but employers should proceed with care if considering whether to use cryptocurrency to pay employee wages, particularly due to challenges with minimum wage and overtime calculations. Indeed, the legal designation for tax purposes is also unsettled: the SEC classifies cryptocurrency as a security; the CFTC says cryptocurrency is a commodity; and since 2014, the IRS has defined cryptocurrency as taxable property.
Given these ambiguities and emerging issues, employers dealing with cryptocurrency and incorporating blockchain technology into their practices should be aware of the potential legal implications and oversight in areas beyond the traditional employment law arena.