1st Circuit: Bankruptcy Code “unequivocally strips tribes” of their sovereign immunity to sue
On May 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed a district court’s decision, ruling that American tribes are not exempt from federal law barring suits against debtors once they file for bankruptcy. The debtor (plaintiff) in 2019 took out a $1,100 payday loan from a creditor (appellee), who is a subsidiary of a tribe. He voluntarily filed a Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition, listing his debt to the appellee, which had increased to approximately $1,600, as a nonpriority unsecured claim. He also listed the appellee on the petition’s creditor matrix, and his attorney mailed the appellee a copy of the proposed Chapter 13 plan. When the plaintiff filed the petition, the Bankruptcy Code imposed an automatic stay enjoining “debt-collection efforts outside the umbrella of the bankruptcy case.” The appellee continued to attempt to contact the plaintiff regarding the debt, but the plaintiff had allegedly previously notified the appellee’s representatives that he had filed for bankruptcy. Two months after the plaintiff filed the petition, he claimed that his “mental and financial agony would never end,” and blamed his agony on the appellee’s “regular and incessant telephone calls, emails and voicemails.” To stop the appellee’s collection efforts, the plaintiff relocated to enforce the automatic stay against the appellee and its corporate parents and sought an order prohibiting future collection efforts, as well as damages, attorney's fees, and expenses. In response, the tribe and its affiliates asserted tribal sovereign immunity and moved to dismiss the enforcement proceeding. The bankruptcy court agreed with the tribe and granted the motions to dismiss.
On the appeal, the tribe argued that the Bankruptcy Code cannot abrogate tribal sovereign immunity because it never uses the word “tribe.” The appellate court noted that the argument “boils down to a magic-words requirement” that tribes must be mentioned in order to be covered by a law, but U.S. Supreme Court precedent “forbids us from adopting a magic-words test.” However, the appellate court further noted that Congress did not determine that tribes were subject to the Code, stating that “[e]ven if Congress need not use magic words to make clear that its abrogation provision applies to Indian tribes, it must at least use words that clearly and unequivocally refer to Indian tribes if it wishes to make that abrogation provision apply to them.” The appellate court ruled that Congress took away tribes' sovereign immunity as “domestic governments” covered by the Bankruptcy Code, stating that even though tribes are not explicitly named in the Code, “we have no doubt that Congress understood tribes to be domestic dependent nations,” and since those “are a form of domestic government, it follows that Congress understood tribes to be domestic governments.”