In what was presumably an unintended consequence, the application of an SEC- approved FINRA regulation has resulted in a conflict between state and federal corporate law for a small publicly traded company.
On September 16, 2014, Ecolocap Solutions, Inc. (“ECOS”) filed a Form 8-K in which it disclosed that FINRA had refused to process its 1-for-2,000 reverse split. At the time of the FINRA refusal, ECOS had already received board and shareholder approval and had filed the necessary amended articles with the State of Nevada, legally effectuating the reverse split in accordance with state law. Moreover, ECOS is subject to the reporting requirements under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended (“Exchange Act”), and had filed a preliminary and then definitive 14C information statement with the SEC, reporting the shareholder approval of the split.
The ECOS 8-K attached a copy of the FINRA denial letter, which can be viewed HERE. In support of its denial of the reverse split, FINRA relied upon its discretion under FINRA Rule 6490 and the existence of a previous SEC action against an individual who is the principal of an entity that is a convertible note holder of ECOS. In particular, FINRA cited an SEC order issued on November 25, 2013 against Curt Kramer, Mazuma Corporation, Mazuma Funding Corporation and Mazuma Holding Corporation involving violations of Section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933 and Rule 504. FINRA cited that Curt Kramer is a principal of Asher Enterprises and that Asher Enterprises, in turn, is a convertible note holder in ECOS and therefore FINRA was refusing to process the reverse split.
In its 8-K filing, ECOS took a strong stance against FINRA, stating that pricing information published by FINRA is inaccurate. In support of their position, ECOS sets forth that the subject reverse split was already legally effective in accordance with state law and therefore FINRA’s refusal to reflect such capital change in ECOS trading quotation results in public misinformation regarding the company’s capitalization. ECOS also objected to FINRA’s application of Rule 6490 in this case by denying that either Mr. Kramer or Asher Enterprises is “connected” with the company as contemplated by the Rule. Furthermore, they stated that the subject SEC action was completely unrelated to ECOS or the reverse split.
Although FINRA has not issued a responsive statement, one of its mandates is to protect investors and maintain fair and orderly markets. In this instance, the Company’s stock is actively trading at $.0001 per share. The Company’s total outstanding shares increased from 893,615,983 one year ago to 6,865,010,372 as of April 2014. ECOS has been in the development stage since January 1, 2007 and has not reported any revenues since September, 2010. The overwhelming majority of the increase in outstanding stock is the result of the conversion of convertible debt, and most of funds received by the company from the note holders was used for salaries, as well as interest on the convertible debt and fees for staying a publicly-traded company (such as satisfying reporting obligations). Although the information in the Company’s filings as to its business operations is sparse, it has been in the same business with the same management since 2007, without any financial success. As of June 30, 2014, the Company had approximately $664,000 in convertible outstanding notes payable. The Company intends to complete a 1:2000 reverse split, which will reduce the total outstanding shares to 3.9 million and presumably increase the share price to $.20.
However, the Company’s new, higher share price will likely be temporary due to the lack of any underlying business success to create support for a higher market valuation. In addition, FINRA realizes that in all probability, upon enactment of the inflated share price, existing note holders have an increased incentive to convert their debt into freely tradable shares and may begin selling these shares in the market. Should such selling pressure occur, and the new share price decrease, any shareholder that purchased at $.20 will most likely suffer a loss. Should the cycle of selling continue, the outstanding shares will increase, potentially into the billions, until the share price is once again $.0001. Taking this into account, FINRA’s concerns are self-evident.
There clearly exists a fundamental conflict between federal and state law and the ability to regulate corporate actions. It raises the basic question of “When is a reverse split effective?” If pursued, this action opens the door for court interpretation of FINRA’s authority under Rule 6490 in general.
Effective September 27, 2010, the SEC approved FINRA Rule 6490 (Processing of Company Related Actions). Rule 6490 requires that corporations whose securities are trading on the over-the-counter market (OTCQX, OTCQB, OTCBB or pinksheets) timely notify FINRA of certain corporate actions, such as dividends, forward or reverse splits, rights or subscription offerings, and name changes. The Rule grants FINRA discretionary power when processing documents related to the announcements.
Rule 6490 works in conjunction with Exchange Act Rule 10b-17. Rule 10b-17 provides that “it shall constitute a manipulative or deceptive device or contrivance as used in section 10(b) of the Act for any issuer of a class of securities publicly traded… to fail to give notice in accordance with paragraph (b) of this section of the following actions relating to such class of securities: (1) a dividend or other distribution in cash or in kind… (2) a stock split or reverse split; or (3) a rights or other subscription offering.” Section (b) requires that notice be given to FINRA “no later than 10 days prior to the record date involved.”
FINRA also issues trading symbols to over-the-counter traded issuers and maintains a database of trading symbols for issuers. When FINRA completes the processing of a corporate action, OTC marketplace is notified of such changes and actions. Most commonly, changes and actions include the re-pricing of securities after a forward or reverse split and the issuance of a new trading symbol following a name change or merger.
Prior to 2010, FINRA’s role has been predominantly ministerial due to their limited jurisdictional ability to impose informational or other regulatory requirements, and fundamental lack of power to reject requested changes. However, since the SEC began expressing concern that entities were using FINRA to assist in fraudulent activities, Rule 6490 was created.
The Rule codifies FINRA’s authority to conduct in-depth reviews of company-related actions and equips the staff with discretion to refuse the processing of such actions in situations when the information or requisite forms are incomplete or when certain indicators of potential fraud exist. FINRA staff now possesses broad discretion to request additional documents and supporting evidence to verify the accuracy of submitted information.
Rule 6490(d)(3) provides:
(3) Deficiency Determination
In circumstances where an SEA Rule 10b-17 Action or Other Company-Related Action is deemed deficient, the Department may determine that it is necessary for the protection of investors, the public interest and to maintain fair and orderly markets, that documentation related to such SEA Rule 10b-17 Action or Other Company-Related Action will not be processed. In instances where the Department makes such a deficiency determination, the request to process documentation related to the SEA Rule 10b-17 Action or Other Company-Related Action, as applicable, will be closed, subject to paragraphs (d)(4) and (e) of this Rule. The Department shall make such deficiency determinations solely on the basis of one or more of the following factors: (1) FINRA staff reasonably believes the forms and all supporting documentation, in whole or in part, may not be complete, accurate or with proper authority; (2) the issuer is not current in its reporting requirements, if applicable, to the SEC or other regulatory authority; (3) FINRA has actual knowledge that the issuer, associated persons, officers, directors, transfer agent, legal adviser, promoters or other persons connected to the issuer or the SEA Rule 10b-17 Action or Other Company-Related Action are the subject of a pending, adjudicated or settled regulatory action or investigation by a federal, state or foreign regulatory agency, or a self-regulatory organization; or a civil or criminal action related to fraud or securities laws violations; (4) a state, federal or foreign authority or self-regulatory organization has provided information to FINRA, or FINRA otherwise has actual knowledge indicating that the issuer, associated persons, officers, directors, transfer agent, legal adviser, promoters or other persons connected with the issuer or the SEA Rule 10b-17 Action or Other Company-Related Action may be potentially involved in fraudulent activities related to the securities markets and/or pose a threat to public investors; and/or (5) there is significant uncertainty in the settlement and clearance process for the security. (emphasis added)
Exchange Act Rule 10b-17 appears to be limited to notice and allows the SEC to pursue an enforcement action for the failure to give such notice in a timely manner. Rule 6490 goes further, stating a corporation action “will not be processed” if FINRA makes a “deficiency determination.” Clearly subsections (3) and (4) give broad discretionary authority to FINRA to render such a deficiency determination and refuse to process an action.
Further exacerbating the existing conflict between the application of state and federal law is the fact that FINRA requires that a Company submit the file-stamped amendments to its corporate charter as part of their review process. Simply stated, the FINRA corporate action process requires that a Company legally completes the corporate action (reverse split, name change, etc.) on the state level prior to issuing a determination as to whether it will process the already-completed change with the marketplace.
State vs. Federal Regulation of Corporate Law
Historically the regulation of corporate law has been firmly within the power and authority of the states. However, over the past few decades the federal government has become increasingly active in matters of corporate governance. In waves, typically following a period of scandal in business or financial markets, the federal government has enacted regulation either directly or indirectly imposing upon state corporate regulations. The predominant method of federal regulation of corporate governance is through the enactment of mandatory terms that either reverse or preempt state law rules on the same point.
State corporation law is generally based on the Delaware and Model Act and offers corporations a degree of flexibility from a menu of reasonable alternatives that can be tailored to companies’ business sectors, markets and corporate culture. Moreover, state judiciaries review and rule upon corporate governance matters considering the facts and circumstances of each case and setting factual precedence based on such individual circumstances. The traditional fiduciary duties that govern state corporations laws include the duties of care and loyalty and are tempered by the business judgment rule.
The duty of care requires that directors exercise the same level of care that would be expected from an ordinarily prudent person in the conduct of his or her own affairs. This includes making an informed decision, seeking the advice of experts when necessary, and considering both the positive and negative impacts of a decision. The duty of loyalty is essentially a proscription against conflict of interest and self-dealing. The business judgment rule basically says that if a director follows both his duty of loyalty and duty of care, then the decision should be deferred to.
Director actions that result in a fraud upon shareholders and investors is actionable under federal (and state) securities laws. Both the state and federal securities regulators are charged with preventing fraud on the markets and protecting the integrity of the trading markets in general.
The ECOS matter has raised heated debate on whether FINRA fairly applied its authority in this case and as to the meaning of “connected.” Publicly traded companies, by nature, have ever-evolving shareholders and investors, the identities of which are often not in the power or control of the company itself. Stock is personal property that generally may be freely transferred by its owners (which should not be confused with suggesting that such transferred stock is always freely tradable on a public market). Debt instruments are negotiable instruments and generally transferrable by the debt holder. The sale and transfer of such debt instruments is common. In the small cap world, changes in management and control are fairly commonplace, as is the change in the business direction of a company.
Regulators are tasked with the job of supporting these changes in the small and micro-cap space and giving every entrepreneur a fair shot while preventing abuses in the system and what such as in this case, they ultimately see, as crossing the line.
Clearly it is problematic when state and federal rules and regulations cause a conflicting result, leaving a board of directors, shareholders and the investing public in a state of flux. What is the capitalization of ECOS? In accordance with state law, the company has approximately 3.4 million shares issued and outstanding; however, according to the over-the-counter marketplace, the company has approximately 6.8 billion shares outstanding. Legally it seems that the company has 3.4 million shares of stock outstanding at a trading price of $.0001 and that FINRA’s refusal to process relates solely to a refusal to re-price the stock as a result of the reverse split and not a broader refusal to recognize the validly of the share reduction itself.
However, many people in the industry are debating the impact and meaning of the decision with divergent views and conclusions, including the legal effect of the reverse split.
A discussion of federal law pre-emption is beyond the scope of this blog. However, even if I did include a treatise on the subject, the answer would be difficult. As an attorney I could write a very good argument that state law applies (the states regulate corporations and where the federal law would yield a different result, state law should apply), and I could also write a very good argument that federal law applies (the states regulate corporations and where the federal law would yield a different result, state law should apply except where there is a competing strong federal policy – such as the regulation of public markets). I could argue that the federal government has no right to stop a corporation from effectuating a name change or reverse split but only the power to prosecute the failure to provide adequate notice of same. I could also argue that the federal government has the right to take actions that may prevent fraud being committed on public markets, including by refusing to allow a name change or reverse split.
Securities attorney Laura Anthony and her experienced legal team provides ongoing corporate counsel to small and mid-size private companies, OTC and exchange traded issuers as well as private companies going public on the NASDAQ, NYSE MKT or over-the-counter market, such as the OTCQB and OTCQX. For nearly two decades Legal & Compliance, LLC has served clients providing fast, personalized, cutting-edge legal service. The firm’s reputation and relationships provide invaluable resources to clients including introductions to investment bankers, broker dealers, institutional investors and other strategic alliances. The firm’s focus includes, but is not limited to, compliance with the Securities Act of 1933 offer sale and registration requirements, including private placement transactions under Regulation D and Regulation S and PIPE Transactions as well as registration statements on Forms S-1, S-8 and S-4; compliance with the reporting requirements of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, including registration on Form 10, reporting on Forms 10-Q, 10-K and 8-K, and 14C Information and 14A Proxy Statements; Regulation A/A+ offerings; all forms of going public transactions; mergers and acquisitions including both reverse mergers and forward mergers, ; applications to and compliance with the corporate governance requirements of securities exchanges including NASDAQ and NYSE MKT; crowdfunding; corporate; and general contract and business transactions. Moreover, Ms. Anthony and her firm represents both target and acquiring companies in reverse mergers and forward mergers, including the preparation of transaction documents such as merger agreements, share exchange agreements, stock purchase agreements, asset purchase agreements and reorganization agreements. Ms. Anthony’s legal team prepares the necessary documentation and assists in completing the requirements of federal and state securities laws and SROs such as FINRA and DTC for 15c2-11 applications, corporate name changes, reverse and forward splits and changes of domicile. Ms. Anthony is also the author of SecuritiesLawBlog.com, the OTC Market’s top source for industry news, and the producer and host of LawCast.com, the securities law network. In addition to many other major metropolitan areas, the firm currently represents clients in New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Boca Raton, West Palm Beach, Atlanta, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Denver, Tampa, Detroit and Dallas.
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