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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

District Court certifies “rent-a-tribe” class action

Courts Class Action RICO Consumer Finance Tribal Lending Usury Interest Rate Payday Lending State Issues


On July 20, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia certified a “rent-a-tribe” class action alleging an individual who orchestrated an online payday lending scheme violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO), engaged in unjust enrichment, and violated Virginia’s usury law by partnering with federally-recognized tribes to issue loans with allegedly usurious interest rates. The plaintiffs alleged the defendant partnered with the tribes to circumvent state usury laws even though the tribes did not control the lending operation. The court ruled that, as there was “no substantive involvement” by the tribes in the lending operation and evidence showed that the defendant was “functionally in charge,” the lending operation—which allegedly charged interest rates exceeding Virginia’s 12 percent interest cap—could not claim tribal immunity. The plaintiffs moved to certify two RICO classes, distinguished from each other based on the lending entity, each with two sub-classes of borrowers: (i) a usury sub-class of borrowers who either paid any principal, interest, or fees on their loans; and (ii) a unjust enrichment subclass of borrowers who paid any amount on their loans. The defendant challenged class certification, arguing that “due to his changing roles” in the lending operation over the class period “differences between class members will result in a need for a series of complicated mini-trials.” In certifying the two RICO classes, the court called the defendant’s recommendation to bring individual lender suits “an unnecessary and untenable burden on the judicial system.” Furthermore, the court wrote that “[w]ith respect to [p]laintiffs’ unjust enrichment claims, [the defendant] also attempts to argue that some [p]laintiffs did not confer a benefit on [the defendant] because they paid back less than they received on their loans.” However, the court noted that because Virginia law states that any contract in violation of the state’s usury law is void, “any money paid on a void contract could constitute a benefit for the purposes of an unjust enrichment.”