Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Prohibits Certain Arbitration Clauses

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) released a final rule that prohibits certain financial service companies from blocking class action lawsuits with pre-dispute arbitration clauses and class action waiver clauses in consumer financial services contracts. The final rule requires arbitration clauses to contain a provision that explains that the arbitration clause cannot be invoked in a class action proceeding and requires parties to submit certain arbitration records to the CFPB whenever an arbitration claim is filed in relation to a consumer that entered a pre-dispute arbitration agreement after the rule’s compliance date.

 

The rule is a consequence of the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, in which Congress authorized the CFPB to issues regulations that limit or prohibit the use of arbitration agreements in the financial industry.  However, it is unclear whether the broad scope may adversely impact smaller entities that cannot afford to defend themselves against a class action lawsuit.

 

The rule is set to become effective on September 17, 2017 and applies to consumer financial services contracts that are entered into 180 days after September 17, 2017.  Thus, the rule does not affect existing contracts, except when a new financial services entity becomes a party to an older contract. Institutions should prepare to review and update their contract provisions to comply with the final rule.

 

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Broker-Dealers Offered Opportunity to Provide Comments to FINRA Rules for Capital Formation

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, known as FINRA, is undergoing a review of internal operations and programs as part of a review process dubbed FINRA 360. FINRA, as an independent self-regulatory organization with the overall goal of protecting investors and creating efficiency in the markets, governs many in the financial services industry in conjunction with the securities and exchange commission. FINRA has been issuing notices and seeking comments from those in the industry, as part of FINRA 360, with the goal of identifying opportunities to further the FINRA mission.

Recently, FINRA started the review process for rules that pertain to broker-dealers and their involvement with the capital formation process, and has issued corresponding notices. One of the recent notices from FINRA includes regulatory notice 17-14, seeking comments regarding broker-dealers when involved with unregistered securities and operating funding portals. The broad spectrum of rules that fall within the purview of notice 17-14 include funding portals, crowdfunding, capital acquisition brokers, unlisted real estate investment trusts, and other administrative and operational rules for raising capital.

For those wishing to submit comments on the rules, FINRA has set a deadline of May 30, 2017. For more information, FINRA notice 17-14 can be found at the following link: http://www.finra.org/sites/default/files/notice_doc_file_ref/Regulatory-Notice-17-14.pdf

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Selecting the Right Entity for Your Tech Startup

Nebraska, and neighboring Midwest states, have developed a reputation as the “Silicon Prairie,” a prime location for technology startups. The recent tech startup boom in the Midwest can be attributed to the lower cost of living, knowledgeable tech labor force, and willingness of the community to embrace the startup. For many of these startups, besides the intense need to develop and protect the technology, a common issue is picking the right business entity structure.

 

In picking the right entity for the startup, several considerations should be weighed, including the need for liability protection, how the company will fund operations, and the most beneficial tax status. For example, if a tech startup is developing a product that will take a substantial period to produce, and likely need multiple rounds of equity financing involving institutional investors, with other funding coming through debt, the demand for classes of shares, preferences, and conversion rights, may require that the startup to form as a C-corporation, with corresponding tax status. On the other hand, if the startup only intends to have one round of equity financing, through a “friends and family” offering, a limited liability company may be appropriate, providing additional flexibility to select tax status.

 

Picking the right type of entity is important for the success of a tech startup, with many considerations to weigh. Ultimately, as facts change, it may be possible to change the structure of your company, but initial selection should not be taken lightly and can reduce problems as your company grows.

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Department of Labor Delays Implementation of the Fiduciary Rule

Last year, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued a final rule, expanding the definition of a fiduciary, making many broker-dealers and insurance agents fiduciaries. This rule, issued April 2016, was set to become effective June 2016, but was then delayed until April 10, 2017, with certain provisions delayed until January of 2018. However, President Trump ordered a review of the new rule and the DOL issued another delay, of 60 days, to complete the review. With the delay, the expanded fiduciary definition will become effective June 9, 2017.

Under the rule, a person or firm that is deemed a fiduciary is required to act in the best interests of their clients. This includes an obligation to avoid conflicts of interests, or otherwise receive compensation that creates a conflict between the interests of the fiduciary and the client. The new rule poses several issues for certain professionals that will be deemed a fiduciary under the new rule. For example, sales commissions would be deemed a conflict of interest, creating an especially problematic situation for broker-dealers that engage in principal transactions with clients. However, the DOL recognized the issue and created several principal transaction exemptions, but the exemptions require additional burdensome steps. This issue, among others, are central to the review causing the rule to be delayed.

Despite this delay, and the DOL admitting the review will not be complete by June 9, 2017, the expanded definition of fiduciary will be implemented at the end of the 60-day delay. Therefore, broker-dealers, insurance agents, and others that will now be deemed a fiduciary, should be prepared for the additional requirements on June 9, 2017.

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SEC Updates Rules for Capital Raises Through Regulation D

Over the past couple of years, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) has evolved how companies can raise capital, while simultaneously maintaining adequate protection for investors. For example, starting in May of 2016, companies were provided the option of raising capital through the newly created Regulation Crowdfunding, but the SEC was not finished modernizing the laws for exempt securities issuance. On October 26, 2016, the SEC finalized rules amending Regulation D, which contains exemptions from securities registration.

 

Many non-public companies, at all stages, rely on Regulation D for capital raises. Depending upon the unique circumstances of the company, the company may have utilized registration exemptions under rule 504, 505, or 506 of Regulation D. However, exemption under rule 505 became disfavored compared to rule 504 and 506 because of the additional, and oftentimes onerous, regulatory requirements. Recognizing this trend, the SEC finalized rules that increased the amount a company can raise under rule 504 to $5,000,000 dollars, up from $1,000,000, in a 12-month period. This means that the same amount of capital can be raised under rule 504 as was possible under rule 505, allowing the SEC to repeal rule 505.

 

For most companies relying on Regulation D to raise capital, the factors used before the rule change will likely continue to be the predominate factors when determining whether to use rule 504, often referred to as the “seed capital” exemption, or rule 506 exemption. For example, an entrepreneur in the first few years of business that requires additional capital to get a product, currently in research and development, to the market, will likely look to rule 504, which limits the total money raised, but is more navigable for new companies. Moving forward, as the SEC undergoes a change of leadership, starting when SEC Chairwoman Mary Jo White steps down in early 2017, these rules may continue to evolve and any company looking to utilize a Regulation D exemption should consult with legal counsel. For more information on the current changes under SEC Regulation D, please visit the following SEC website: https://www.sec.gov/news/pressrelease/2016-226.html

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100% Exclusion for Qualified Small Business Stock Held for Five Years

Starting a small business is full of challenges and an entrepreneur will have many concerns, especially with ensuring adequate operating capital and meeting funding requirements. The federal government does recognize the importance of small business and the challenges faced by entrepreneurs, including cash issues, and reacted by making permanent the 100% qualified small business stock (QSBS) exclusion in December of 2015.

Originally, in 1993, Section 1202 of the Internal Revenue Code was enacted, encouraging investment in small business by excluding 50% of capital gains from the sale of QSBS held for 5 years. Over the years, the exclusion changed and evolved until 100% of capital gains from the sale of QSBS held for 5 years was excluded, if the required conditions were met. The 100% exclusion was set to expire at the end of 2015, but the exclusion was made permanent in the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act, enacted in December 2015.

The 100% QSBS exclusion, although permanent, is nuanced and the stock itself must be held for five years, be in a C corporation, be in a Corporation with less than $50 million of assets at the time the stock was issued, have acquired the stock at its original issue, and have over 80% of the corporation assets being used in the active conduct of a qualified business during the entire time holding the stock. Active conduct is similarly defined under the tax code, excluding investment vehicles, brokerage services, farming business, and other inactive business. For those looking to utilize the QSBS exclusion or attract new capital from investors under this exclusion, a proper evaluation should be conducted to ensure the stock qualifies.

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As Small Business Week Ends, A Reminder of a Few Resources Available to Entrepreneurs

As small business week comes to a close, including special resources and webinars available at various federal government entities only during the week, a variety of different resources remain available for the entrepreneur from the federal government. For example, the resources at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) include instructional publications, tax calculators, and informational videos on the varied tax requirements for small business. Further information can be found at the following link: https://www.irs.gov/uac/IRS-Marks-Small-Business-Week-2016-with-Four-Webinars

The Small Business Administration (SBA) also offers a variety of resources for a small business, including information ranging from securing a SBA loan to creating a business plan. During small business week, the SBA hosts informational webinars about issues facing entrepreneurs, most notably securing capital to operate and grow. Further information from the SBA can be found at the following link: https://www.sba.gov/nsbw/

For those entrepreneurs in Nebraska, the state offers resources through the Department of Economic Development. Information about local taxes, lenders, and business registration in Nebraska can be found at the following link: http://www.neded.org/business/start-a-business

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