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  • 4th Circuit holds lenders sufficiently proved tribal immunity

    Courts

    On July 3, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of two tribal lenders’ motion to dismiss a putative class action lawsuit brought by Virginia residents, concluding the lenders properly claimed tribal sovereign immunity. The complaint alleged that the tribal lenders violated Virginia’s usury laws by charging Virginia residents interest rates 50-times-higher than those permitted under Virginia law. The tribal lenders moved to dismiss the action in district court on the grounds that they are entitled to sovereign immunity as an arm of the tribe. The district court denied the motion, concluding the tribal lenders (i) bore the burden of proof of immunity; and (ii) failed to prove they were an “arm-of-the-tribe.”

    On appeal, the 4th Circuit agreed with the district court that the burden of proof in the arm-of-the-tribe analysis should be placed on the defendant, stating “[u]nlike the tribe itself, an entity should not be given a presumption of immunity until it has demonstrated that it is in fact an extension of the tribe.” However, the appellate court rejected the district court’s conclusion that the tribal lenders failed to meet their burden, noting that while the tribal lenders were funded and controlled by a non-tribal company, ten percent of the tribe’s general fund comes from one of the lenders, and a judgment against either lender “could in fact significantly impact the tribal treasury.” Ultimately, the appellate court concluded that the lenders had “promoted ‘the Tribe’s self-determination through revenue generation and the funding of diversified economic development” and a finding of no immunity, “would weaken the Tribe’s ability to govern itself according to its own laws, become self-sufficient, and develop economic opportunities for its members.”

    Courts Fourth Circuit Appellate Tribal Immunity Class Action Usury

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