First Federal Ruling Against SEC on Whether Digital Token is a Security

December 03, 2018

On November 27, 2018, the United States District Court for the Southern District of California denied the Securities and Exchange Commission’s motion for a preliminary injunction to block an initial coin offering, finding the Commission did not meet its burden of showing the digital token in question was a security. Although this appears to be the first Federal decision against the Commission on the question of whether a token is a security under the Howey test, and may encourage some issuers with the resources to do so to resist SEC enforcement efforts, the order is extremely narrow in scope and is not likely to deter the Commission’s ICO enforcement efforts or shed much light on when if ever a token is not a security.

The issuer in this case, Blockvest LLC, is purportedly seeking to develop the “first licensed and regulated tokenized crypto currency exchange and index fund based in the U.S.” Earlier this year, it announced a plan to issue tokens in three stages: a private sale with a 50% bonus, followed by a “pre-sale” with a 20% bonus, and then a $100 million ICO to be launched on December 1, 2018.

In its original complaint filed on October 3, the Commission premised its fraud case on the notion that Blockvest’s token was a security without analyzing the facts under Howey, but rather by asserting that Blockvest itself conceded that its BLV token was a security by filing a Form D with the Commission and stating on its website that it was “Regulation A+ compliant and can offer [its] securities offering to Unaccredited Investors all over the globe” (emphasis added). See my last blog post regarding the Blockvest offering and its apparent offering exemption confusion.

In mid-October, U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, issued an ex parte (i.e., with only the Commission appearing before him) temporary restraining order in this case freezing Blockvest’s assets related to the ICO, based solely on the Commission’s version of the facts and largely because of multiple false claims made by Blockvest in its ICO promotional materials that it was “registered” and “approved” by the SEC and other regulators, that its chief marketing officer was licensed by FINRA and that it was audited by Deloitte.

As to the issue of whether Blockvest’s BLV token was a security, because the earlier TRO motion was made ex parte, the Court based its factual findings at that procedural stage tirely on what the Commission had asserted, namely that investors had invested more than $2.5 million in BLV tokens, which constituted 18% of the offering, and that the purchasers were interested primarily in the profit the BLVs were expected to generate given that Blockvest’s website promised that the BLVs would generate passive income.

But in Blockvest’s brief opposing the preliminary injunction motion and in a related written declaration by its founder Buddy Ringgold, the defendants offered a completely different factual narrative. They asserted that in fact no tokens were sold to the public and that Blockvest never received any money from their sale, and that Blockvest had only one investor (Rosegold Investment, in which Ringgold himself and friends and family were investors). Further, they asserted that BLV tokens were only used to test the platform by 32 “testers” who contributed less than $10,000 in the aggregate.  The BLV tokens were never released to the testers and the testers could not remove the tokens from the platform. Presumably, the testers could not resell them for profit.

The injunction rejection order states that “Ringgold recognizes that mistakes were made” but does not specify what those were. Presumably, it’s a reference to the various misrepresentations about regulatory endorsement. It may also refer to allowing eight of 17 investors in Rosegold (the investment vehicle) to write “Blockvest” and/or “coins” on their checks. It may also be a reference to Blockvest’s website temporarily featuring a credit card function with a “buy now” button. As to the SEC’s allegation that Blockvest had raised $2.5 million from investors, as Blockvest had boasted on social media, Blockvest explained it away as an “overly optimistic” statement and that in any event the funds were not intended to come from the public but rather from one investor, David Drake, and had fallen through anyway. Ringgold maintains the mistakes were made in the early stages of development when Blockvest’s chief compliance officer had not yet reviewed all the materials.

Unlike the TRO order, the injunction rejection order does invoke the Howey test, under which an instrument is deemed to be an investment contract and thus a security if it involves (i) an investment of money, (ii) in a common enterprise, (iii) with a reasonable expectation of earning a profit through the efforts of others. Judge Curiel addressed the first and third prongs of Howey, but not the second.  Under the first prong, “investment of money”, Judge Curiel examined not what the testers’ intent was in committing funds, but rather what Blockvest represented to the testers and what the testers relied on. Here, Judge Curiel found that the Commission and Blockvest provided “starkly different facts as to what the 32 test investors relied on, in terms of promotional materials, information, economic inducements or oral representations at the seminars, before they purchased the test BLV tokens”, and that consequently the court could not make a determination whether the test BLV tokens were “securities” under the first prong of Howey.  As to the second prong, “expectation of profits”, which Judge Curiel identified as either through capital appreciation or profit participation, he once again found that the Commission had not met its burden of proving expectation of profit.

So what are the key takeaways here? The competing factual narratives suggest this to be a narrow ruling. It must be kept in mind that this order comes without the benefit of full discovery; it’s basically “he said/she said”.  And without full discovery to address disputed issues of material facts, the court could not conclude that the Commission had met its burden in establishing that the BLV token offered to the 32 test investors was a security. Also, the Commission may have brought this case prematurely inasmuch as it was under the impression that the tokens had already been sold to the public; Blockvest in turn asserted facts indicating that no tokens had yet been issued (or offered) to the public and the tokens purchased by the testers were for testing purposes only and never released from the platform. It’s also unclear whether the Commission will pursue this case inasmuch as it has already secured Blockvest’s commitment to cease all efforts with respect to the ICO and to give the Commission 30 days’ notice of any resumption of efforts in this regard. Nevertheless, the order does serve as a reminder that the Commission, when seeking enforcement against an ICO in court, will have the burden of establishing that each of Howey’s prongs have been met, and suggests that future cases may be decided on the issuer’s actual marketing efforts and representations to purchasers and not on subjective perceptions of those purchasers’ expectations of profit.