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Connecticut Supreme Court says lender protected by tribal sovereign immunity

Courts State Issues Tribal Immunity Usury Consumer Lending Consumer Finance Online Lending Interest Rate

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On May 20, the Connecticut Supreme Court held that a lender accused of issuing usurious consumer loans without being properly licensed is protected by tribal sovereign immunity. In 2014, the Connecticut Department of Banking initiated an enforcement action against two lenders and a tribal officer of one of the lenders, claiming the lenders violated Connecticut’s banking and usury laws by making high-interest consumer loans over the internet without a license. The commissioner issued cease-and-desist orders and imposed civil penalties on the lenders. The lenders filed a motion in Connecticut Superior Court to dismiss the administrative proceedings for lack of jurisdiction, claiming they were arms of a federally recognized tribe and entitled to tribal sovereign immunity. The Superior Court vacated the orders against the lenders and remanded the case for an evidentiary hearing on whether the lenders are entitled to sovereign immunity.

The Connecticut Supreme Court reversed in part the Superior Court’s order, finding that the lower court should have applied the “Breakthrough factors” adopted by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits to determine whether the lenders were arms of the tribe. These factors include analysis of (i) “the method of creation” of the entities; (ii) the stated purpose of the entities; (iii) “the structure, ownership, and management of the entities,” which includes the amount of control the tribe has over them; (iv) the tribe’s intent with respect to extending its sovereign immunity to the entities; and (v) “the financial relationship between the tribe and the entities.” Applying these factors, the Connecticut Supreme Court found that one of the lenders was entitled to sovereign immunity because the lender was created under tribal law, is controlled by directors appointed by the tribal council for the purpose of promoting tribal economic development and welfare, and there was a “significant financial relationship” between the tribe and the lender. With respect to the other lender, the court found that there was insufficient evidence to show that it is an arm of the tribe and that further proceedings were necessary to determine its right to sovereign immunity.

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