The Legal Liability of Funding Portals: Update for TruCrowd Complaint

A few weeks ago I posted about the potential legal liability of funding portals. Lo and behold, on September 20, 2021 the SEC brought an enforcement action against an issuer and its principals, and also against the funding portal, TruCrowd, Inc., dba Fundanna, and its owner, Vincent Petrescu.

Here’s a link to the Complaint. If you take the Complaint at face value – and readers should bear in mind that there are least two sides to every story – this is a lesson in how a funding portal can get into hot water with a questionable issuer.

The allegations against the issuer and its principals are straightforward:  they failed to disclose the criminal record of one of the principals; they used investor money for personal purposes; they misled investors about a purported real estate project.

More interesting for our purposes are the allegations against the funding portal and its owner. Calling TruCrowd and Mr. Petrescu “gatekeepers,” the SEC alleges, among other things, that:

  • TruCrowd and Mr. Petrescu allowed the offerings to proceed despite multiple warning signs of possible fraud or other harm to investors.
  • Mr. Petrescu participated in drafting the inaccurate Form C and offering statement.
  • TruCrowd and Mr. Petrescu failed to order a “bad actor” check.
  • Mr. Petrescu ignored warning from a securities lawyer.

It’s hard to walk away from a big commission. But this enforcement action illustrates that sometimes you have to.

Crowdfunding web portal

The Legal Liability of A TITLE III Funding Portal

In this blog post I summarized the potential legal liability of issuers raising capital using Title II Crowdfunding (aka Rule 506(c)), Title III Crowdfunding (aka Reg CF), and Title IV Crowdfunding (aka Regulation A). Here, I’ll summarize the potential legal liability of a registered Title III funding portal.

To start, let’s distinguish between two kinds of liability:  liability to the government (e.g., to the SEC) for breaking rules; and liability to private parties. Most people think about the first kind of liability but often the second is more important. The government doesn’t know about most violations of securities laws and even if it knows must pick and choose which cases to prosecute. Conversely, private parties – issuers and investors – are likely to know about actual or potential violations and there are plenty of plaintiffs’ lawyers willing to take a shot.

Section 4A(c) of the Securities Act

Section 4A(c) of the Securities Act of 1933 makes an “issuer” liable to an investor where:

  • The issuer made an untrue statement of a material fact or omitted to state a material fact required to be stated or necessary in order to make the statements, in the light of the circumstances under which they were made, not misleading;
  • The investor didn’t know of the untruth or omission; and
  • The issuer cannot demonstrate that the issuer did not know, and in the exercise of reasonable care could not have known, of the untruth or omission.

The statute defines “issuer” to include:

  • Any person who is a director or partner of the issuer;
  • The principal executive officer, principal financial officer, and controller or principal accounting officer of the issuer;
  • Any person occupying a similar status or performing a similar function, regardless of title; and
  • Any person who offers or sells the security in the Reg CF offering.

The SEC has declined to say one way or another whether a funding portal is an “issuer” for these purposes. Given the role of funding portals in presenting securities to the public, however, it seems likely except in unusual circumstances.

If a funding portal is an issuer and a Form C contains false statements or omits important information, the funding portal would be liable to private lawsuits from investors unless the funding portal can prove that it didn’t know about the false statements or omissions and couldn’t have learned about them by exercising reasonable care.

The language of section 4A(c) is very similar to the language of section 12(a)(2) of the Securities Act, which applies to public companies. But the playing field is different. The document used in a public filing – a prospectus – is typically subject to layer upon layer of due diligence, not only by the issuer and its lawyers but also by the underwriter and others. In contrast, many of the Form Cs we see on funding portals are prepared by people with little or no experience in securities, typically online. I expect to see lots of litigation under section 4A(c), as courts decide what “reasonable care” means for funding portals.

Private Lawsuits:              Yes

Rule 10b-5

17 C.F.R. §240.10b-5, issued by the SEC under section 10(b) of the Exchange Act, makes it unlawful, in connection with the purchase or sale of any security:

  • To employ any device, scheme, or artifice to defraud,
  • To make any untrue statement of a material fact or to omit to state a material fact necessary in order to make the statements made, in the light of the circumstances under which they were made, not misleading, or
  • To engage in any act, practice, or course of business which operates or would operate as a fraud or deceit upon any person.

Liability arises under Rule 10b-5 only with the intent to deceive, known in legal jargon as “scienter.”

The Supreme Court has held that only the person who “makes” a deceptive statement or omission can be liable under the second prong of Rule 10b-5 – not a person who merely disseminates the statement innocently. But that begs the question:  does a funding portal merely disseminate information from issuers, or does it “make” the statements along with the issuer? Given the role of funding portals in Reg CF, very possibly the latter, although that could depend on the facts of a given case.

But that question could be moot. Under recent court decisions, a funding portal that knows about the misleading statements or omissions and allows them on its website anyway could be liable under either the first or third prongs of Rule 10b-5.

Private Lawsuits:              Yes

Section 17(a) of the Securities Act

Section 17(a) of the Securities Act makes it unlawful for any person, including the issuer, in the offer or sale of securities, to:

  • Employ any device, scheme, or artifice to defraud, or
  • Obtain money or property by means of any untrue statement of a material fact or any omission to state a material fact necessary in order to make the statements made, in light of the circumstances under which they were made, not misleading; or
  • Engage in any transaction, practice, or course of business which operates or would operate as a fraud or deceit upon the purchaser.

Even if it is not the issuer, a funding portal participating in a scheme to mislead investor could be subject to section 17(a) of the Act just as it could be liable to investors under Rule 10b-5.

Private Lawsuits:              No

Crowdfunding and FINRA Regulations

A funding portal that violates the regulations issued by the SEC or FINRA could be sanctioned or, in the extreme case, have its registration with the SEC and/or its membership in FINRA suspended, effectively putting it out of business.

An investor who loses money and learns that the funding portal violated SEC regulations will probably claim that the regulatory violation gives rise to a private right of action – that is, that if she was harmed by the regulatory violation then she can sue the funding portal. Although we can never say never, her claim should fail.

Private Lawsuits:              No

State Common Law

A funding portal could be liable to investors under a variety of state “common law” (as opposed to statutory law) theories, including fraud and misrepresentation. In the typical case, the investor would try to show that (i) the issuer did something wrong, and (ii) the funding portal is responsible for it.

Private Lawsuits:              Yes

Liability to Issuers

Funding portals will be sued by issuers. Among the possible claims:

  • The funding portal made promises about the offering that proved false (e.g., “You’re sure to raise at least $2 million!”);
  • The funding portal conducted the offering ineffectively (e.g., failing to notify subscribers by email);
  • The funding portal made factual misrepresentations (e.g., the number of its registered users or the percentage of its successful raises); and
  • Actions by the funding portal caused the issuer to face lawsuits from investors (e.g., the funding listed the issuer’s year-over-year revenue growth as 1,300% rather than 130%).

Private Lawsuits:              Yes

Criminal Rules

If a funding portal really screws up, it could even be subject to Federal and state criminal penalties, including:

  • Criminal penalties for intentionally violating securities laws
  • Criminal penalties for mail fraud
  • Criminal penalties for wire fraud
  • Criminal penalties for violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations

Liability of People

Entrepreneurs too often believe that operating through a corporation or other legal entity protects them from personal liability. For example, an entrepreneur on her way to a business meeting swerves to run over a gaggle of doctors and jumps from her car, laughing. “You can’t sue me, I operate through a corporation!”

No. She did it, so she’s personally liable, corporation or no corporation. If her employee did it, the story might be different (unless he was drunk when she handed him the keys).

The same is true in securities laws. To the extent you’re personally making decisions for the funding portal, all the potential liability I’ve described applies to you personally as well.

Reducing Your Risk

A funding portal can and should take steps to reduce its legal risk. These include:

  • Strong Contract with Issuers:  Funding portals should have a strong contract with issuers, clearly defining who is responsible for what and disclaiming liability on the funding portal’s part.
  • Training:  A junior employee of a funding portal once told my client to do something that clearly violated the securities laws. Recognizing that funding portals, like other employers, are liable for the acts of their employees, funding portals should have in place a strong training program. Among other things, employees should know about the funding portal’s potential liability and be familiar with its Manual of Policies & Procedures.
  • Due Diligence Processes:  Funding portals should have in place processes and policies for conducting due diligence. How much due diligence is required is an open question, but if a funding portal is sued for failing to discover a misstatement in a Form C, it’s going to be asked about its due diligence policies. The answer can’t be “None.”
  • Insurance:  Like any other business, funding portals should carry insurance. Even a very weak lawsuit can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend.
  • Culture:  The sea at the tip of South America is among the roughest in the world, as two oceans collide. Crowdfunding is like that, sort of. On one hand, Crowdfunding is new and disruptive and attracts people who want to do something. On the other hand, the legal landscape in which Crowdfunding takes place is old and well-worn, developed before many American homes had radio. Leaping into the brave new world of online capital formation, eager to move fast and at least dent things, funding portals must nevertheless create a culture that takes seriously the often-tedious responsibility associated with selling securities.

Beneficiary Designations by Crowdfunding Issuers and Portals

Some Crowdfunding portals and issuers allow investors to designate a beneficiary, i.e., a person who will take ownership of the security (the LLC interest, debt instrument, whatever) should the investor die. Just be careful.

Most states (not Texas) allow the owners of securities, including privately-held securities, to designate a beneficiary outside the owner’s will, under a version of the Uniform TOD (Transfer on Death) Security Registration Act (the Delaware version is 12 DE Code §801 et seq). For the investor, the advantage of designating a beneficiary is that the security doesn’t go through the probate process but instead passes directly to the designated beneficiary.

For the Crowdfunding issuer or portal, there is a benefit to making life easier for investors. And it’s pretty straightforward to create a beneficiary designation form on your website.

Nevertheless, adding convenience for investors carries some risks. For example:

  • Suppose an investor wants to designate her cousin Jacob as the beneficiary of her LLC interest. She uses Jacob’s name on the beneficiary designation form but mistakenly uses her husband’s social security number, out of habit. What happens?
  • The investor correctly designates Jacob on the form but later changes her mind and designates her husband as the beneficiary of the LLC interest in her will. Unfortunately for her husband, the beneficiary designation made using your form cannot be undone by the will. Your form didn’t make that clear.
  • The investor properly designates Jacob as the beneficiary of her LLC interest and doesn’t change her mind, but she lives in a community property state and your form didn’t tell her she needed her husband’s consent.
  • The investor properly designates Jacob as the beneficiary of her LLC interest but he dies before she does, and she hasn’t designated a successor beneficiary.
  • Your site crashes and the investor’s beneficiary designation is lost.

What’s your budget for legal fees this year?

Designating a beneficiary on your site isn’t the investor’s only option. She can sign a simple will or codicil (if she already has a will) designating a beneficiary for her LLC interest and any other securities or other property, which probably makes more sense than designating beneficiaries security-by-security. And if her cousin and husband end up arguing over the codicil, you’re not involved.

If you’d like a sample of a Beneficiary Designation Form let me know.

SEC ISSUES EMERGENCY RULES TO FACILITATE TITLE III CROWDFUNDING DURING COVID-19 CRISIS

With credit markets tightened and 30 million Americans newly out of work, the SEC has adopted temporary rules to make Title III Crowdfunding a little easier from now until August 31, 2020.

The temporary rules are available here. They aim to make Title III a little faster and easier in four ways:

#1 – Launch Offering without Financial Statements

An issuer can launch the offering – go live on a funding portal – before its financial statements are available. (But investment commitments aren’t binding until the financial statements have been provided.)

#2 – Lower Standard for Some Financial Statements

An issuer trying to raise between $107,000 and $250,000 in a 12-month period doesn’t have to produce financial statements reviewed by an independent accountant, only financial statements and certain information from its tax return, both certified by the CEO.

#3 – Quicker Closing

An issuer can close the offering as soon as it has raised the target offering amount, even if the offering hasn’t been live for 21 days, as long as the closing occurs at least 48 hours after the last investment commitment and the funding portal notifies investors of the early closing.

#4 – Limit on Investor Cancellations 

Investors can cancel within 48 hours of making a commitment, but can’t cancel after that unless there’s a material change in the offering.

CAVEAT:  These rules are not available if the issuer:

  • Was organized or operating within six months before launching the offering (e., this is not for brand-new companies); or
  • Previously raised money using Title III Crowdfunding but failed to comply with its obligations.

I’m not sure how much difference these rules will make in practice. But that’s not the main point as far as I’m concerned. The main point is that with about a million other things on its plate, the SEC took the time to think about and draft these rules. The SEC must believe that equity Crowdfunding can play an important role in our capital markets.

On that basis, I predict that the proposals the SEC made on March 4th will be adopted soon after the public comment period expires on June 1st. And after that, who knows.

SEC PROPOSES MAJOR UPGRADES TO CROWDFUNDING RULES

The SEC just proposed major changes to every kind of online offering:  Rule 504, Rule 506(b), Rule 506(c), Regulation A, and Regulation CF.

The proposals and the reasoning behind them take up 351 pages. An SEC summary is here, while the full text is here. The proposals are likely to become effective in more or less their existing form after a 60-day comment period.

I’ll touch on only a few highlights:

  • No Limits in Title III for Accredited Investors:  In what I believe is the most significant change, there will no longer be any limits on how much an accredited investor can invest in a Regulation CF offering. This change eliminates the need for side-by-side offerings and allows the funding portal to earn commissions on the accredited investor piece. The proposals also change the investment limits for non-accredited investor from a “lesser of net worth or income” standard to a “greater of net worth or income” standard, but that’s much less significant, in my opinion.
  • Title III Limit Raised to $5M:  Today the limit is $1.07M per year; it will soon be $5M per year, opening the door to larger small companies.

NOTE:  Those two changes, taken together, mean that funding portals can make more money. The impact on the Crowdfunding industry could be profound, leading to greater compliance, sounder business practices, and fewer gimmicks (e.g., $10,000 minimums).

  • No Verification for Subsequent Rule 506(c) Offerings:  In what could have been a very important change but apparently isn’t, if an issuer has verified that Investor Smith is accredited in a Rule 506(c) offering and conducts a second (and third, and so on) Rule 506(c) offering, the issuer does not have to re-verify that Investor Smith is accredited, as long as Investor Smith self-certifies. But apparently the proposal applies only to the same issuer, not to an affiliate of the issuer. Thus, if Investor Smith invested in real estate offering #1, she must still be verified for real estate offering #2, even if the two offerings are by the same sponsor.
  • Regulation A Limit Raised to $75M:  Today the limit is $50M per year; it will soon be $75M per year. The effect of this change will be to make Regulation A more useful for smaller large companies.
  • Allow Testing the Waters for Regulation CF:  Today, a company thinking about Title III can’t advertise the offering until it’s live on a funding portal. Under the new rules, the company will be able to “test the waters” like a Regulation A issuer.

NOTE:  Taken as a whole, the proposals narrow the gap between Rule 506(c) and Title III. Look for (i) Title III funding portals to broaden their marketing efforts to include issuers who were otherwise considering only Rule 506(c), and (ii) websites that were previously focused only on Rule 506(c) to consider becoming funding portals, allowing them to legally receive commissions on transactions up to $5M.

  • Allow SPVs for Regulation CF:  Today, you can’t form a special-purpose-vehicle to invest using Title III. Under the SEC proposals, you can.

NOTE:  Oddly, this means you can use SPVs in a Title III offering, but not in a Title II offering (Rule 506(c)) or Title IV offering (Regulation A) where there are more than 100 investors.

  • Financial Information in Rule 506(b):  The proposal relaxes the information that must be provided to non-accredited investors in a Rule 506(b) offering. Thus, if the offering is for no more than $20M one set of information will be required, while if it is for more than $20 another (more extensive) set of information will be required.
  • No More SAFEs in Regulation CF:  Nope.

NOTE:  The rules says the securities must be “. . . . equity securities, debt securities, or securities convertible or exchangeable to equity interests. . . .” A perceptive readers asks “What about revenue-sharing notes?” Right now I don’t know, but I’m sure this will be asked and addressed during the comment period.

  • Demo Days:  Provided they are conducted by certain groups and in certain ways, so-called “demo days” would not be considered “general solicitation.”
  • Integration Rules:  Securities lawyers worry whether two offerings will be “integrated” and treated as one, thereby spoiling both. The SEC’s proposals relax those rules.

These proposals are great for the Crowdfunding industry and for American capitalism. They’re not about Wall Street. They’re about small companies and ordinary American investors, where jobs and ideas come from.

No, the proposals don’t fix every problem. Compliance for Title III issuers is still way too hard, for example. But the SEC deserves (another) round of applause.

Please reach out if you’d like to discuss.

Simple Wholesaling Podcast: Raising Money Online for Your Deals & More

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Mark Roderick appeared on the Simple Wholesaling Podcast to talk about crowdfunding and the laws and logistics of raising money online.

In this episode, Mark discusses:

  • Mark’s story
  • Raising capital online
  • Businesses that have been very successful
  • How entrepreneurs and the consumers are protected online
  • Portals he recommends
  • Where people should start if they’re interested to try crowdfunding
  • The “don’ts” when trying to raise money on the Internet
  • What accredited investor means
  • The types of returns entrepreneurs pay out to their crowd investors
  • The effects on the stock market when we have many options to invest in different things

The Exchange with KB: Crowdfunding, Blockchain & Cryptocurrencies

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Mark Roderick appeared on The Exchange with KB podcast with host Kirill Bensonoff, where he discussed Crowdfunding, Blockchain & Cryptocurrencies. In this episode, Kirill and Mark discussed the JOBS Act, Title II Crowdfunding, Accredited Investors, Regulation Crowdfunding, why we need investment regulation, the future of cryptocurrency, Libra and other blockchain tech and cryptocurrency, and legislation regarding blockchain and crypto.

The Cashflow Hustle Podcast: Crowdfunding Techniques to Level Up Your Business

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Mark Roderick appeared on the Cashflow Hustle Podcast with Justin Grimes, where he discussed Crowdfunding Techniques to Level Up Your Business.

In this Episode, You’ll Learn About:

1. The Crowdfunding and its flavors
2. The deductions in Crowdfunding
3. The role of SEC
4. Blockchain technology in Crowdfunding
5. The Investor portals
6. Tokenized security in Crowdfunding

Questions? Let me know.

The Wealthy Wellthy Podcast: What You Don’t Know About Crowdfunding

The Wealthy Wellthy Podcast: What You Don’t Know About Crowdfunding

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Our guest on this episode of The Wealthy Wellthy Podcast is Mark Roderick, an attorney who devotes most of his time to crowdfunding. Maybe you are like me in thinking that crowdfunding is pretty straightforward and self-explanatory. I mean, if your friend is looking to start a business and you want to support them, you can donate or invest through their crowdfunding page online and that’s that, right?

Every entrepreneur faces the stage in their business where they need to acquire capital, either from acquaintances, networking, angel investors, venture capitalists, or strategic partners. This process is messy and confusing, filled with regulations and stipulations that may make acquiring the capital more trouble than it is worth. This was partially due to the antiquated laws that were created in the aftermath of The Great Depression and were stifling in the modern economic climate. However, in 2012, the Jobs Act made it legal for entrepreneurs to advertise to raise capital. This opened up a whole new world for small business owners and others who were desperate to be able to connect more easily with potential investors as well as investors who were eager to find new opportunities.

During the interview, Mark distinguishes between the 3 kinds of crowdfunding: (1) to accredited investors only, (2) Regulation A to accredited or non accredited investors, and (3) Title 3 – which is the most common. He also talks about the factors that are most important from a legal perspective when you are determining which crowdfunding site to use to raise capital or to invest capital. It was also interesting to hear Mark spell out the 3 reasons why people invest through crowdfunding: (1) they want to support the company, (2) to do social good, and (3) to make money.

Mark even gave me some advice about a real estate deal I am considering and revealed that 90-95% of the capital exchanged through crowdfunding is for real estate transactions. Finally, he busted a couple of myths regarding the amount of risk involved in crowdfunding and whether money raised from others is subject to securities laws.

What We Covered

  • [2:16] – Who is Mark Roderick?
  • [3:28] – Mark describes the fragmented traditional ways of raising capital.
  • [8:58] – Angel investors and how to present your “deck” to them.
  • [11:08] – Working with venture capitalists and strategic partners.
  • [13:31] – A brief history of the laws affecting capital.
  • [22:34] – What does crowdfunding look like for startup entrepreneurs?
  • [27:20] – How to find a regulated site to post your capital request on.
  • [30:58] – Crowdfunding is the intersection of old and new school.
  • [34:57] – Advice to keep in mind when you are using a crowdfunding site.
  • [38:06] – Mark tells us 3 of the crowdfunding sites he works with.
  • [40:08] – When should an entrepreneur hire an attorney during this process?
  • [42:40]– The prevalence of real estate in the crowdfunding world.
  • [53:24] – What message does Mark want to get out there?
  • [56:17] – Mark busts 2 myths about crowdfunding.

Questions? Let me know.

Trouble In Paradise: Lending Club And Prosper

Lending Club and Prosper are going through a rough patch. Renaud Laplanche, the CEO and founder of Lending Club, just resigned amid allegations of financial irregularities, while Prosper recently laid off more than a quarter of its employees.

But those are only the ripples on the pond’s surface. What’s going on underneath is that Wall Street is losing faith in the business model – that is, losing faith in the quality of the loans made on the Lending Club and Prosper platforms.

Not long ago, Wall Street financial institutions couldn’t get enough of Lending Club and Prosper loans. Now the same institutions are cutting back and the effect is severe.

To me, there are two lessons.

This is a Brand New Business Model, and It’s Going to be a Bumpy Ride

Marketplace lending started with the observation that banks pay much less interest to depositors than they charged to borrowers, and that technology should allow someone to decrease that spread, making a profit in the bargain. Lending Club and Prosper grew by substituting proprietary algorithms for traditional bank due diligence. The algorithms seem to work,and institutional investors rushed in.

But marketplace lending has been around for less than 10 years and nobody knows how the algorithms will perform during a down cycle. It’s not a big surprise that Wall Street money managers, aware that the economy might be due for a downturn, are hedging their bets.

The fickleness of Wall Street money managers doesn’t mean the business model of Lending Club and Prosper is broken. To me, there is little doubt that algorithms and big data will replace traditional bank due diligence – not only in consumer lending, but in other parts of the Crowdfunding ecosystem as well. But the algorithms and business models might well have to be adjusted, and nobody should expect a straight line from A to Z.

The fickleness of Wall Street money managers leads to the second lesson.

Wall Street is Fickle

Soon after launching a Crowdfunding platform, you realize there’s a choice where you look for investment capital. You might have begun with the idea of raising money from the public – that is, from retail investors – but you realize quickly that you can also raise money from institutions.

Raising money from institutions is often much easier because, well, institutions have more money. But there are a couple downsides:

  • You started off hoping to become a household brand, but if most of your money comes from institutions you risk becoming merely a deal originator for institutions, with far less clout and long-term brand value.
  • You started off idealistically hoping to bring high-quality investments to the public, but if most of your money comes from institutions, you aren’t.

The experience of Lending Club and Prosper reveals another downside: Wall Street is fickle. If you build your Crowdfunding business based on large investments from a handful of institutional investors it’s a lot of fun on the way up, but when the institutions pull the plug it’s a hard fall.

Ideally, a Crowdfunding platform can have it both ways, using institutional money to build the business while building its brand with the retail public, to the point where the business can survive and prosper even if institutional tastes change. I don’t know whether that’s possible, but I hope so.

Questions? Let me know.