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On February 15, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York denied class certification in an action brought by an investment company against a bank acting as trustee for five residential mortgage-backed securities trusts in which the company invested. The investment company filed a class action suit against the trustee asserting claims for breach of contract, breach of the duty of trust, and violations of the Trust Indenture Act. Among other things, the allegations concern whether the trustee “failed to fulfil certain contractual duties triggered by the discovery of breaches of ‘representations and warranties’” when the underlying mortgages allegedly were found not to be of the promised quality. The investment company also alleged that the trustee failed to exercise its rights to require the companies that sold the mortgages in question “to cure, substitute, or repurchase the breaching loans.”
In dismissing class certification, the court found that questions of law or fact common to all class members did not dominate individual issues. The court held that there was no proof that the liability claims of potential class members who held certificates in one trust would be relevant to the claims of other potential class members in one of the other trusts, and that the individualized questions “involve relatively complex legal and factual inquiries—requiring considerable resources in comparison to those questions which are capable of class-wide resolution.”
On February 20, the SEC announced a cease-and-desist order with a cybersecurity startup for conducting an unregistered Initial Coin Offering (ICO), which the company self-reported. According to the order, in late 2017, the startup conducted an unregistered ICO, which raised approximately $12.7 million in digital assets. The money was used to finance the startup’s plan to “develop a network in which participants could rent spare bandwidth and storage space on their computers and servers to others for use in defense against certain types of cyberattacks.” The SEC noted that the tokens offered and sold were considered securities because a purchaser would have a reasonable expectation of obtaining a future profit from the investment. The startup did not register the ICO nor did it qualify for an exemption to the registration requirements. The SEC did not impose a monetary penalty because, according to the order, in the summer of 2018 the startup self-reported the unregistered ICO and offered to take prompt remedial actions. The order requires the startup to return the funds to investors who purchased the tokens and register the tokens as securities.
On January 29, NYDFS announced a $40 million settlement with a London-based financial services company to resolve allegations the bank engaged in unsafe and unsound practices in its foreign exchange (FX) trading business. According to the consent order, the company did not implement and maintain sufficient controls to identify illegal tactics used by traders to maximize profits or minimize losses at the expense of the company’s customers, competitors, and the market as a whole. Among other things, the order states that between 2007 and 2013 the company’s FX traders (i) improperly coordinated trading through a chat room; (ii) improperly shared confidential consumer information; and (iii) engaged in “deliberate underfills” of consumer accounts. In addition to the fine, the company is required to improve its internal controls and programs to comply with applicable New York State and federal laws and regulations, submit a written plan to improve its compliance risk management program, and provide an enhanced written internal audit program. NYDFS acknowledged the company’s full cooperation with the investigation, in addition to taking disciplinary action against those identified as engaging in the misconduct.
On December 26, the SEC announced a settlement with a national bank to resolve allegations that the bank mishandled the pre-release of American Depositary Receipts (ADRs)—U.S. securities that represent shares in foreign companies. The SEC noted in its press release that ADRs can be pre-released without the deposit of foreign shares only if: (i) the brokers receiving the ADRs have an agreement with a depository bank; and (ii) the broker or the broker's customer owns the number of foreign shares that corresponds to the number of shares the ADR represents. The SEC alleged that the bank improperly provided thousands of pre-released ADRs where neither the broker nor its customers possessed the required shares. According to the SEC’s order, the bank’s alleged practice of allowing pre-released ADRs, that were in many instances not backed by ordinary shares, violated the Securities Act of 1933. The bank has neither admitted nor denied the SEC’s allegations, but has agreed to pay more than $71 million in disgorgement, roughly $14.4 million in prejudgment interest, and an approximate $49.7 million penalty. The SEC’s order further acknowledges the bank’s cooperation in the investigation and implementation of remedial measures.
District Court approves $480 million settlement between national bank and investors over incentive compensation sales program
On December 18, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted final approval following a fairness hearing to a $480 million settlement with a national bank to resolve a consolidated class action related to the bank’s previous incentive compensation sales program. As previously covered by InfoBytes, an agreement in principle was announced last May. The court’s order resolves class action allegations stemming from the September 2016 consent order between the bank and the CFPB, which resolved allegations related to the opening of deposit and credit card accounts for consumers without consent. (See previously InfoBytes coverage here.)
On December 17, the SEC announced a settlement with a global investment bank to resolve allegations that the bank mishandled the pre-release of American Depositary Receipts (ADRs)—U.S. securities that represent shares in foreign companies. The SEC noted in its press release that ADRs can be pre-released without the deposit of foreign shares only if: (i) the brokers receiving the ADRs have an agreement with a depository bank; and (ii) the broker or the broker's customer owns the number of foreign shares that corresponds to the number of shares the ADR represents. The SEC alleged that the bank improperly provided thousands of pre-released ADRs where neither the broker nor its customers beneficially owned the required shares. According to the SEC’s order, the bank’s alleged practice of allowing pre-released ADRs that were in many instances not backed by ordinary shares violated the Securities Act of 1933. The bank has neither admitted nor denied the SEC’s allegations, but has agreed to pay more than $29.3 million in disgorgement, roughly $4.2 million in prejudgment interest, and a $20.5 million penalty. The SEC’s order further acknowledges the bank’s cooperation in the investigation and implementation of remedial measures.
District Court rejects dismissal bid, determining plaintiff sufficiently alleged ICO tokens were unregistered stock
On December 10, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey denied a motion to dismiss a putative class action, finding the plaintiff sufficiently alleged that a company’s sale of unregistered cryptocurrency tokens were “investment contracts” under securities law. According to the opinion, the plaintiff filed the proposed class action against the company alleging it sold unregistered securities in violation of the Securities Act after purchasing $25,000 worth of tokens during the company’s initial coin offering (ICO). The company moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the tokens were not securities subject to the registration requirements of the Act. The court applied the three-prong “investment contract” test from SEC v. W.J. Howey Co.—“the three requirements for establishing an investment contract are: (1) an investment of money, (2) in a common enterprise, (3) with profits to come solely from the efforts of others”—and determined the token sales met the requirements. Focusing on the second and third prongs, because the company acknowledged the first was satisfied, the court concluded that the plaintiff sufficiently alleged the existence of a common enterprise by showing a “horizontal commonality” from the pooling of the contributions used to develop and maintain the company’s tasking platform. As for the third prong, the court determined the investors had an expectation of profit rather than simply a means to use the tasking platform, as demonstrated by the company’s marketing of the ICO as a “‘unique investment opportunity’ that would ‘generate better financial returns[.]’”
On November 16, the SEC announced cryptocurrency-related settlements imposing civil money penalties against two companies that allegedly offered and sold digital tokens through initial coin offerings (ICO). The settlements are the SEC’s first cases imposing civil money penalties based solely on alleged ICO securities offering registration violations. According to the SEC, the two companies allegedly violated the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 by offering and selling ICO tokens without (i) registering them pursuant to federal securities laws; or (ii) qualifying for an exemption to registration requirements. Under the terms of the settlement agreements (available here and here), the companies—who have neither admitted nor denied the findings—have each agreed to pay a $250,000 civil money penalty, and will also (i) return funds to impacted investors; (ii) register the digital tokens as securities; and (iii) file periodic reports with the SEC.
On November 20, the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies Division of Securities (Division) released a statement announcing four new cease-and-desist orders taken against companies for allegedly selling unregistered securities through initial coin offerings (ICOs) to Colorado consumers. The orders come as a result of investigations conducted by the Division’s ICO Task Force, which was created to investigate potentially fraudulent activity. According to the announcement, the Colorado Securities Commissioner has now signed orders for 18 cases against ICOs, and currently has at least two additional pending orders.
On November 8, the SEC announced its first enforcement action settlement with a digital currency platform for allegedly operating as an unregistered national securities exchange. According to the cease-and-desist order, the founder of the digital currency exchange, who has since sold the exchange to foreign buyers, allegedly violated federal securities laws by providing an online platform for secondary market trading of digital assets, including ERC20 tokens, without registering with the Commission or operating pursuant to a registration exemption. ERC20 tokens are digital assets issued and distributed on the Ethereum Blockchain using the ERC20 protocol, which, according to the SEC, is the standard coding protocol currently used by a significant majority of issuers in initial coin offerings. The order emphasizes that 92 percent of the trades on the exchange took place after the SEC released its Report of Investigation Pursuant To Section 21(a) Of The Securities Exchange Act of 1934: The DAO (the DAO Report) in July 2017, advising that non-exempt digital currency exchanges must register with the Commission. Without admitting or denying the findings, the founder agreed to pay $300,000 in disgorgement plus interest and a $75,000 penalty.
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