SEC

Employers: What FINRA’s Cryptocurrency Complaint Signifies For You

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.

The SEC Ends the Summer with Another Bountiful Award of over $54 Million to Two Whistleblowers

On September 6, the SEC issued awards totaling more than $54 million to two whistleblowers who provided critical information and continued assistance to the agency in an enforcement action. This large award follows another composite mega-award of $83 million to three whistleblowers in a single enforcement action on March 19, 2018.

The September 6 award of $39 million to one claimant constitutes the second-largest award in the SEC whistleblower program’s history. The agency awarded the second whistleblower $15 million. Jane Norberg, Chief of the SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower, stated that whistleblowers “serve as invaluable sources of information, and can propel an investigation forward by helping [the SEC] overcome obstacles and delays in investigation.” READ MORE

Can You Hear The Whistle Now? SEC Proposes New Rule Amendments To Bolster the Bounty Program

On June 28, the Securities Exchange Commission (“SEC” or “Commission”) voted to propose amendments to its whistleblower program. As SEC Chair Jay Clayton explained, the proposed changes would “strengthen the whistleblower program by bolstering the Commission’s ability to more appropriately and expeditiously reward those who provide critical information that leads to successful enforcement actions.” The SEC issued a press release outlining the proposed rules, which would: (1) provide the Commission with additional tools in making whistleblower awards; (2) clarify the requirements for anti-retaliation protection under the whistleblower statute; (3) provide interpretive guidance to help clarify the meaning of “independent analysis”; (4) increase efficiencies in the whistleblower claims review process; and (5) clarify various miscellaneous policies and procedures. READ MORE

CEO’s Whistleblower Claims “Rest On Feet Of Clay”: Seventh Circuit Affirms Dismissal Of SOX and Dodd-Frank Case

Earlier this month, the Seventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of a CEO’s whistleblower retaliation claims in a decision that should provide corporate defendants ammunition to fight SOX and Dodd-Frank whistleblower cases going forward.

In Verfuerth v. Orion Energy Systems, Inc., No. 16-3502 (7th Cir. Jan. 11, 2017), the plaintiff, founder and former CEO of Orion, claimed that Orion’s Board of Directors terminated him for cause in retaliation for making whistleblower complaints about perceived fraud on SEC reports and other managerial decisions.  Orion asserted that it terminated Verfuerth for numerous legitimate reasons, including falling stock prices, Verfuerth’s intimidating leadership style, high rates of senior management turnover, and other business disagreements such as reimbursement for Verfuerth’s costly divorce. READ MORE

SEC, CFTC and OSHA Officials Offer Candid Insights into Whistleblower Programs’ Results, Priorities, and Future Directions

On June 28, 2017, three prominent whistleblower law regulators spoke at PLI’s Corporate Whistleblowing in 2017, which was co-chaired by Orrick partners Mike Delikat and Renee Phillips. With the standard disclaimer that their comments and opinions were their own and not the official comments of their respective agencies, each spoke candidly about their agencies’ whistleblower program’s progress, challenges, and priorities.

SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower

The Chief of the SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower (“OWB”), Jane Norberg, kicked off the panel with her views on the current status and priorities of the OWB in the new administration: “From my point of view, the SEC’s whistleblower program is open for business and we are moving forward as we have in the past.”  She elaborated on the program’s results to date, noting that the Commission has received over 18,000 tips and awarded over $154 million to 44 tipsters, reflecting over $1 billion recovered through the SEC’s enforcement actions and related actions arising from whistleblower tips.  Norberg explained, “the real value of the program comes from individuals who help prevent ongoing fraud at a company while also giving victims a chance to recover some of what they lost.” READ MORE

Will the Whistle Be Silenced? Dismantling Dodd-Frank

Silver school PE sports whistle on white background Will the Whistle be Silenced? Dismantling Dodd-Frank

When Donald Trump was elected President of the United States in November, he vowed to “dismantle” the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank”). In its place, Trump promised to replace the law “with new policies to encourage economic growth and job creation.”  Now a bill known as the Financial CHOICE Act may initiate the process to do just that. But at least with respect to Dodd-Frank’s whistleblower provisions, the Financial CHOICE Act would leave largely intact the current bounty programs that have already awarded tipsters over $150 million in the U.S. and abroad.

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Rules of the Road: New CFTC Regulations Expand Whistleblower Bounty Program

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), published updated regulations Monday to bring its whistleblower bounty efforts more in line with the SEC’s.  The rules were proposed last August and generally provide more robust protections to would-be whistleblowers.  According to an agency press release, “In addition to strengthening anti-retaliation protections, the new amendments will add efficiency and transparency to the process of deciding whistleblower award claims and will, in many respects, harmonize the CFTC’s rules with those of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s whistleblower program.”  READ MORE

Whistleblower’s Ability to Breach Confidentiality Agreement – Do the Ends Justify the Means?

It is common for employers to require employees whose job duties require access to confidential, sensitive, and/or proprietary information to sign confidentiality and/or non-disclosure agreements as a condition of employment. However, at least in limited circumstances involving whistleblowers, employers are finding that they may not be permitted to enforce such agreements under all circumstances.  READ MORE

Circuit Split on Whistleblower Protections Widens: Ninth Circuit Follows Second Circuit and Splits with Fifth Circuit in Holding That Internal Whistleblowers Are Protected by Dodd-Frank

On March 8, 2017, a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion in Somers v. Digital Realty Trust Inc. that further widened a circuit split on the issue of whether the anti-retaliation provisions in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act apply to whistleblowers who claim retaliation after reporting internally or instead only to those who report information to the SEC.  Following the Second Circuit’s 2015 decision in Berman v. [email protected] LLC, the Ninth Circuit panel held that Dodd-Frank protections apply to internal whistleblowers.  By contrast, the Fifth Circuit considered this issue in its 2013 decision in Asadi v. G.E. Energy (USA), LLC and found that the Dodd-Frank anti-retaliation provisions unambiguously protect only those whistleblowers who report directly to the SEC. READ MORE

Whistle While You Work: SEC Whistleblower Office Releases Its 2016 Annual Report

The SEC released its Fiscal Year 2016 Annual Report (the “Report”) to Congress on the Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Program on November 15, 2016. The Report analyzes the tips received over the last twelve months by the SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower (“OWB”), provides additional information about the whistleblower awards to date, discusses the OWB’s efforts to combat agreements that chill whistleblowers, and describes the OWB’s recent activity in the anti-retaliation arena.

Breakdown of Tips Received in FY 2016

The OWB reported a modest increase in the number of whistleblower tips and complaints that it received in 2016–4,218 tips in 2016 compared to 3,923 tips in 2015. Overall, the 2016 whistleblower tips were similar in number and type of whistleblower tips reported in 2015. As in 2015, the most common types of allegations in 2016 were Corporate Disclosure and Financials (22%), Offering Fraud (15%), and Manipulation (11%). Most whistleblowers, however, selected “Other” when asked to describe their allegations.

The OWB received whistleblower tips and complaints from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Domestically, the largest number of whistleblower complaints and tips were from California (547), New York (296), Florida (239), and Ohio (230). Additionally, the OWB received whistleblower tips from individuals located in 67 foreign countries. Of these, the countries from which the largest number of tips originated were Canada (68), the United Kingdom (63), Australia (53), the People’s Republic of China (35), Mexico (29), and India (20), with Germany, Ireland, and Taiwan being other countries from which the SEC received more than 10 tips.