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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

9th Circuit says tribal lenders can arbitrate RICO class claims

Courts Arbitration Tribal Lending RICO Interest Rate Usury Ninth Circuit Appellate

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On September 16, a split U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit concluded that “an agreement delegating to an arbitrator the gateway question of whether the underlying arbitration agreement is enforceable must be upheld unless that specific delegation provision is itself unenforceable.” The appellate court’s decision reversed a district court’s ruling that an arbitration agreement entered between tribal lenders and borrowers was unenforceable because it impermissibly waived borrowers’ rights to pursue federal statutory claims. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in April the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted class certification to residents who received loans from an online lender, allowing them to pursue class Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) claims based on allegations they were charged interest rates that exceeded state limits for lenders claiming tribal immunity. The class of borrowers include California residents who collected loans from an Oklahoma-based tribe, and California residents who received loans from a Montana-based tribe. The district court also ruled that the entire arbitration agreement, including provisions containing a class action waiver, was unenforceable. The lenders appealed.

On appeal, the 9th Circuit majority cited to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Rent-A-Center, West, Inc. v. Jackson, which determined, among other things, that when a party challenges an entire agreement—not just an arbitration provision—deciding “gateway” issues such as enforceability must be delegated to an arbitrator. “We do not dispute that [b]orrowers have a reasonable argument that the arbitration agreement as written precludes them from asserting their RICO claims or other federal claims in arbitration. . . . And if that is true, the arbitration agreement is likely unenforceable as a prospective waiver,” the majority wrote. “But, when there is a clear delegation provision, that question is. . .for the arbitrator to decide so long as the delegation provision itself does not eliminate parties’ rights to purse their federal remedies,” the majority added.

The 9th Circuit’s opinion differs from decisions issued by other appellate courts, which found that certain delegation provisions were unenforceable for various reasons after reviewing whether an arbitration agreement as a whole was unenforceable due to prospective waiver of federal claims. (See InfoBytes coverage of the 3rd and 4th Circuit decisions here and here.) The majority stated that the other appellate courts “considered the wrong thing by ‘confus[ing] the question of who decides arbitrability with the separate question of who prevails on arbitrability.’” According to the majority, “[t]he proper question is not whether the entire arbitration agreement constitutes a prospective waiver, but whether the antecedent agreement delegating resolution of that question to the arbitrator constitutes prospective waiver.”

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