(Reuters) – The plaintiffs firm once known as Roche Freedman, now redubbed Freedman Normand Friedland, has been ousted from another crypto class action because of clandestine – and embarrassing — video recordings of onetime name partner Kyle Roche.
But this time, the problem wasn’t the content of the videos, in which Roche appeared to boast of his lucrative stake in blockchain company Ava Labs Inc and to suggest that he filed class actions against Ava competitors to boost Ava’s prospects.
Instead, US District Judge James Donato of San Francisco removed Freedman Normand as lead counsel in a securities fraud class action against blockchain company Dfinity USA Research LLC because he found the firm to be so consumed by vindicating its own reputation that it could not be relied upon to protect the interests of class members.
Donato’s May 8 decision followed seven months of litigation that the judge described as “a bitter war” that included “charges of personal vendettas, deepfake videos and other events not typically encountered in securities lawsuits.” (More on that below.)
He is the second federal judge to remove Freedman Normand as lead counsel in a crypto case, after US District Judge Katherine Polk Failla of Manhattan booted the firm from a class action against stablecoin issuer Tether Ltd and crypto exchange Bitfinex last October. After Failla’s ruling, Freedman Normand voluntarily withdrew from two other crypto class actions in the Manhattan federal court.
The firm has defeated disqualification motions in several other cases, including litigation against self-proclaimed Bitcoin inventor Craig Wright, who unsuccessfully sought to remove Freedman Normand from the appeal of a $143 million judgment the firm obtained for Wright’s one-time business partner.
The Dfinity fight before Donato was particularly heated, though, because Freedman Normand blamed Dfinity’s founder and CEO for the entire Roche mess.
According to the firm, it was Dfinity that engaged a Norwegian businessman with ties to international intelligence agencies to lure Roche to London to discuss a supposed investment in a litigation funding venture. Those meetings, according to Freedman Normand, were actually a set up: The Norwegian operative got Roche drunk and secretly videotaped him making intemperate remarks, including a comment that crypto class members were “100,000 idiots out there” and that jurors were “10 idiots [who] control the flow of all the money that happens in American class actions.”
Freedman Normand asserted that Dfinity then launched an anonymous website, Crypto Leaks, to post the secret recordings of Roche.
The firm has espoused different positions on the authenticity of the recordings at various points in its fight to stay in the Dfinity class action. Early on, it acknowledged that Roche – who left the firm soon after Crypto Leaks published the videos – had made inappropriate and inexcusable comments. But later in the disqualification litigation, Freedman Normand sought to file an expert report purporting to show that many of the Crypto Leaks videos were inauthentic “deepfakes.”
Donato noted the shift in his opinion ousting the firm. He called it a “flipflop,” and said Freedman Normand’s renunciation of its “forthright” acknowledgment had added to his concern that the plaintiffs firm “is heavily invested in protecting its own interests, to the detriment of those of the class.”
Roche, who now has his own eponymous firm, did not respond to my email query.
Freedman Normand said in an email statement that it was “disappointed” with Donato’s order. “It criticized the firm for merely defending itself from Dfinity’s accusations [and] did not address the central aspects of our arguments,” the statement said. “The firm has never ‘flipped.’ We continue to disavow the problematic statements in the videos, but when new evidence indicates the videos are deepfaked and that Mr. Roche never made those statements, we wisely advised the court of that development.”
Dfinity counsel from Cravath, Swaine & Moore and Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan did not deny Dfinity’s involvement in the secret recordings in their brief responding to Freedman Normand’s assertions. Dfinity only said that it didn’t matter if Roche was set up because he was not coerced into making the statement that landed him in hot water.
Dfinity’s lawyers did not respond to my email request for comment.
After initial briefing on Dfinity’s motion to disqualify Freedman Normand, Donato ordered a deposition to determine the extent of Roche’s remaining ties to Freedman Normand, including the extent of Roche’s control of the firm’s Ava-issued tokens, which are held in a crypto wallet.
The deposition of name partner Freedman generated yet more bizarre allegations. In a letter asking Donato to seal the deposition transcript because it revealed confidential information about the firm’s relationship with its now-former client Ava, Freedman Normand also told the judge that it was feared Dfinity executives would “misuse” the sensitive information to threaten and intimidate Roche and his former colleagues. Freedman Normand asserted that Dfinity had already “made threats on Mr. Roche’s life, necessitating FBI involvement.”
In Monday’s decision, Donato said he did not need to probe that claim, which turned out to have been based on “multiple layers of hearsay.” (Apparently, a Freedman Normand associate told the firm’s in-house general counsel that a friend, also a lawyer, reported hearing that “people associated with Dfinity were planning to kill Mr. Roche.”)
Donato said he regarded Freedman Normand’s assertion of a murder threat as yet more evidence that the firm was so “deeply immersed in a toxic perception of the defendants in this case” that it was not capable of fulfilling its fiduciary obligations to the class.
Donato also said that the record showed Roche remains entangled with his former firm. Roche’s new firm is co-counseling with Freedman Normand in three cases – none of them class actions, according to the firm – and is still in joint control, with Freedman, of the digital wallet containing tokens from Ava. (Ava, according to Freedman Normand, terminated its relationship with Roche and the successor firm after Crypto Leaks released the Roche tapes.)
It has now been six months since the Roche tapes shook up the crypto bar. Most of the disqualification motions based on the tapes have already been decided, so Donato’s Definity ruling serves as a sort of coda on the entire fiasco.
In the end, it turns out, Freedman Normand’s fight to delegitimize the tapes seems to have only made things worse.
Crypto law firm Roche Freedman parts ways with founder after video leak
Crypto law firm Roche Freedman fights to stay in bitcoin case after videos surface
Law firms seek out oust Roche Freedman from the Tether crypto case
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Alison Frankel has covered high-stakes commercial litigation as a columnist for Reuters since 2011. A Dartmouth college graduate, she has worked as a journalist in New York covering the legal industry and the law for more than three decades. Prior to joining Reuters, she was a writer and editor at The American Lawyer. Frankel is the author of Double Eagle: The Epic Story of the World’s Most Valuable Coin.