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On January 21, the SEC announced that it filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York against a blockchain company and the company’s founder (defendants) for allegedly “conducting a fraudulent and unregistered initial coin offering (ICO).” The SEC alleges, among other things, that from 2017 until 2018, the defendants raised $600,000 from nearly 200 investors through promoting an ICO of digital asset securities called “OPP Tokens,” using material misrepresentations to create the false impression that the defendants’ platform was creating notable growth in the company. The defendants marketed the tokens by making misstatements to potential investors, greatly exaggerating the numbers of providers that were “willing to do business on, and contribute content to, [defendants’] blockchain-based platform.” The complaint also alleges that in marketing the ICO, the defendants provided a catalog of small businesses eligible to use the defendants’ platform that numbered in the millions, in order to create the false impression that the platform had a huge base of users. In reality, the catalog was not compiled by the defendants, but was simply acquired from a vendor. Additionally, the SEC alleges that the defendants provided numerous customer reviews in its promotions to create the impression that the platform had many users creating content, which were actually reviews stolen from a third-party website. The SEC charges that in addition to the above allegations, the defendants misrepresented that they had filed an SEC registration statement for the ICO. The SEC seeks injunctive relief, disgorgement of profits, civil money penalties, and a permanent bar preventing the founder from serving as officer or director of any public company.
On October 11, the SEC announced it obtained a temporary restraining order through an emergency action filed against two offshore entities that allegedly raised more than $1.7 billion of investor funds. According to the complaint, the entities sold approximately 2.9 million digital tokens worldwide, including more than 1 billion tokens to 39 U.S. purchasers. The entities promised that the tokens would be delivered upon the launch of its own blockchain by the end of October 2019. The SEC alleges the entities violated Sections 5(a) and 5(c) of the Securities Act by failing to register its offers and sales of securities with the SEC. In addition to the emergency relief, the SEC is seeking a permanent injunction, disgorgement, and civil penalties against the offshore entities.
On September 30, the SEC announced a settlement with a blockchain technology company resolving allegations that the company conducted an unregistered initial coin offering (ICO). According to the order, the company raised several billion dollars from the general public after an ICO, in which it publicly offered and sold 900 million digital assets in exchange for virtual currency, to raise capital to develop software. The SEC alleges that the company violated Section 5(a) and 5(c) of the Securities Act because the digital assets it sold were securities under federal securities laws, and the company did not have the required registration statement filed or in effect, nor did it qualify for an exemption to the registration requirements. The order, which the company consented to without admitting nor denying the findings, imposes a $24 million civil money penalty.
On September 18, the SEC announced it filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against a digital platform and its owner (collectively, “defendants”) for raising over $14 million in an unregistered initial coin offering (ICO) in violation of Section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933 and for acting as unregistered brokers for other digital asset offerings in violation of Section 15 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. The SEC contends the defendants claimed to investors that their tokens would increase in value upon trading and that ICO token holders would be able to swap them for other tokens on the platform, at an average of a 75 percent discount. The SEC notes that the tokens had experienced “a precipitous loss in value” since issuance, averaging roughly 1/20th of the average purchase price during the offering. Moreover, the SEC alleges the defendants acted as a broker for other ICOs, raising over $650 million for their clients. The SEC’s suit seeks a permanent injunction, disgorgement of profits plus interest, and civil penalties.
On June 4, the SEC announced it had filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against a tech company issuer for allegedly raising approximately $100 million through an unregistered initial coin offering. According to the complaint, the issuer failed to provide required disclosures to investors and did not register the offer or sale of its digital tokens with the SEC, as required by Section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933. The SEC contends that the issuer marketed the digital tokens as an investment opportunity and told investors that they could earn future profits from the issuer’s efforts to create, develop, and support a digital “ecosystem.” According to the SEC, “[f]uture profits based on the efforts of others is a hallmark of a securities offering that must comply with the federal securities laws.” The SEC’s suit seeks a permanent injunction, disgorgement of profits plus interest, and a civil penalty.
On April 3, the SEC issued a no-action letter to a Delaware-based airline chartering services company not recommending enforcement action for offering and selling “tokens” without registration under the SEC Act. According to the letter, the SEC relied upon the company’s counsel’s opinion, which assured that consumers are purchasing the tokens solely for prepaid “air charter services and not for investment purposes or with an expectation to earn a profit,” in determining that the “tokens” were not securities. Additionally, the SEC’s relief considered numerous other factors such as: (i) the platform for conducting the sale of the tokens will “be fully developed and operational” at the time any tokens are sold and funds derived from token sales will not be used to develop the platform; (ii) consumers will be able to immediately use the tokens for their intended functionality (i.e., to purchase air charter services) at the time of sale; (iii) the company will restrict the transfer of tokens to company wallets only and not to external wallets; (iv) the tokens will be sold for one dollar to be used solely on the platform to purchase air charter services, and will be treated as having a value of one dollar; (v) if the company offers to repurchase tokens, it will do so at a discount to the face value of the tokens that the holder seeks to resell to the company, unless a court orders the company to liquidate the tokens; and (vi) the tokens will not be marketed in such a way that there is a perceived potential for an increase in the token’s market value.
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.
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 27, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California denied the SEC’s motion for a preliminary injunction against a cryptocurrency company, concluding the agency failed show the currency tokens were “securities” as defined under federal securities laws. According to the order, the SEC filed a complaint against the company in October alleging it falsely claimed its initial coin offering (ICO) was registered and approved by the SEC and other regulators, including using the agency’s seal in marketing materials. At the time of the filing, the SEC claimed the company had already raised more than $2.5 million in pre-ICO sales. The SEC moved for a preliminary injunction to freeze the company’s assets and prevent the company’s owner from buying or selling securities and other digital currency during the pendency of the case. Upon review, the court noted the SEC must establish the company previously violated federal securities laws and there is a reasonable likelihood that it will happen again. The SEC argued the allegedly fraudulent marketing materials used to raise money from 32 “test investors” violated federal securities laws, while the company argued the investors did not have an expectation to receive profits as they were working with the company on the exchange’s functionality and therefore, the currency tokens were not “securities.” The court denied the SEC’s motion, concluding that it could not determine whether the tokens were “securities” under federal law without full discovery as there were disputed issues of material facts, including what the test investors relied on in terms of marketing materials before they purchased the cryptocurrency tokens.
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.
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