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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.”
On April 11, a Florida county court concluded that a defendant lender and certain company officials were entitled to sovereign immunity in a case concerning alleged usury claims. The plaintiff claimed the lender used its supposed federally-recognized tribal affiliation to escape state usury regulations. The court dismissed the complaint, however, finding that the lender is an “arm of the tribe” under a six-prong test established by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in Breakthrough Management Group, Inc. v. Chukchansi Gold Casino & Resort. The test determines whether sovereign immunity should apply by examining, among other factors, an entity’s creation, the amount of control a tribe has over the entity, and the financial relationship between the tribe and the entity. According to the court, the defendant’s evidence suggests that the tribe created the defendant as a business entity “to generate and contribute revenues” to the tribe’s general fund. The court found that insufficient detail was presented to support the plaintiff’s assertion that the defendant pays a relatively small percentage of its gross revenues to the tribe. The court added that the plaintiff also failed to present evidence proving that large portions of the defendant’s revenue were distributed to non-tribal entities. In dismissing the case with prejudice, the court also dismissed claims against three individual defendants because they were entitled to sovereign immunity. The court concluded that the plaintiff’s allegations demonstrated that the individuals committed the alleged wrongs in their capacities as employees and officers and therefore the “real party in interest” is the lender.
On November 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld a district court’s ruling denying defendants’ bid to dismiss or compel arbitration of a class action concerning alleged usury law violations. The plaintiffs—Virginia consumers who defaulted on short-term loans received from online lenders affiliated with a federally-recognized tribe—filed a putative class action against tribal officials as well as two non-members affiliated with the tribal lenders, alleging the lenders violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and Virginia usury laws by charging interest rates between 544 and 920 percent. The defendants moved to compel arbitration under a clause in the loan agreements and moved to dismiss on various grounds, including that they were exempt from Virginia usury laws. The district court denied the motions to compel arbitration and to dismiss, ruling that the arbitration provision was unenforceable as a prospective waiver of the borrowers’ federal rights and that the defendants could not claim tribal sovereign immunity. The district court also “held the loan agreements’ choice of tribal law unenforceable as a violation of Virginia’s strong public policy against unregulated lending of usurious loans.” However, the district court dismissed the RICO claim against the tribal officials, ruling that RICO only authorizes private plaintiffs to sue for money damages and not injunctive or declaratory relief.
On appeal, the 4th Circuit concluded that the arbitration clauses in the loan agreements impermissibly force borrowers to waive their federal substantive rights under federal consumer protection laws, and contained an unenforceable tribal choice-of-law provision because Virginia law caps general interest rates at 12 percent. As such, the appellate court stated that the entire arbitration provision is unenforceable. “The [t]ribal [l]enders drafted an invalid contract that strips borrowers of their substantive federal statutory rights,” the appellate court wrote. “[W]e cannot save that contract by revising it on appeal.” The 4th Circuit also declined to extend tribal sovereign immunity to the tribal officials, determining that while “the tribe itself retains sovereign immunity, it cannot shroud its officials with immunity in federal court when those officials violate applicable state law.” The appellate court further noted that the “Supreme Court has explicitly blessed suits against tribal officials to enjoin violations of federal and state law.” The 4th Circuit ultimately affirmed the district court’s judgment, noting that the loan agreement provisions were unenforceable because “tribal law’s authorization of triple-digit interest rates on low-dollar, short-term loans violates Virginia’s compelling public policy against unregulated usurious lending.”
The appellate court also agreed with the district court that RICO does not permit private plaintiffs to seek an injunction. “Congress’s use of significantly different language” to define the scope of governmental and private claims under RICO “compels us to conclude” that “private plaintiffs may sue only for treble damages and costs,” the appellate court stated. While plaintiffs “urge us to consider by analogy the antitrust statutes,” provisions outlined in the Clayton Act (which explicitly authorize injunction-seeking private suits) have “no analogue in the RICO statute,” the appellate court wrote, adding that “nowhere in the RICO statute has Congress explicitly authorized private actions for injunctive relief.”
On October 14, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted class certification in an action alleging a payday lending operation violated RICO and Virginia’s usury law by partnering with federally-recognized tribes to issue loans with allegedly usurious interest rates. The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants (“founders, funders, [or] closely held owners of [a lender] that serviced the high-interest loans made by certain tribal lending entities”) participated in a lending scheme to circumvent state usury laws. The plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief, damages, and attorney’s fees and costs arising from claims alleging that the defendants, among other things: (i) used income derived from the collection of unlawful debt to further assist the operations of the enterprise; (ii) participated in an enterprise involving the unlawful collection of debt; (iii) collected unlawful debt; (iv) entered into unlawful agreements; (v) issued unlawful loans with interest rates exceeding 12 percent; and (vi) were thus unjustly enriched. The court granted class certification after finding that the existence of a class action waiver in loan agreements between plaintiffs and tribal lenders did not bar class certification. The court explained that “[b]ecause the class action waivers exist to ‘make unavailable to the borrowers the effective vindication of federal statutory protections and remedies,’ the prospective waiver doctrine applies.” The waivers were thus unenforceable.
On July 13, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment in a consolidated class action concerning whether a now-defunct online lender can use tribal immunity to circumvent state interest rate caps. The plaintiffs took out short-term loans carrying allegedly usurious interest rates from entities run through several federally recognized tribes. While the defendants attempted to rely on tribal immunity as a defense, the court determined that California law applies to the plaintiffs and class members who took out loans in the state. According to the court, “California, with its strong history of prohibiting usury, has the materially greater interest in enforcing its usury laws and protecting its consumers from usurious conduct than either of the relevant [t]ribal [e]ntities whose connection to the loans—while not insignificant—was temporal and whose aims were to avoid state usury laws.” Calling tribal immunity “irrelevant,” the court added that the “claims here hinge on the personal conduct of the defendants. While that conduct is based in significant part on the services defendants personally engaged in or approved to be provided to the [t]ribes, the claims do not impede on the sovereignty of the [t]ribes where the [t]ribes are not defendants in this case and no [t]ribal [e]ntities remain.”
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.
On February 18, the CFPB released a Decision and Order denying a joint request to set aside civil investigative demands (CIDs) issued in 2019 to four online installment lenders owned by a federally recognized Indian tribe, as well as a processing services company. The CIDs in dispute were issued to the petitioners last October and sought information “to determine whether lenders or associated individuals or entities have violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act’s (CFPA) prohibition on unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts and practices [(UDAAP)] by collecting amounts that consumers did not owe or by making false or misleading representations to consumers in the course of servicing loans and collecting debts.” As previously covered by InfoBytes, four of the petitioners were also part of a 2017 CFPB enforcement action, which alleged that the lenders’ practices violated UDAAP and the Truth in Lending Act. This action was voluntarily dismissed without prejudice in 2018 (covered by InfoBytes here).
According to the CFPB, the joint petition to set aside or modify the CIDs sets out five primary arguments: (i) the CFPB “lacks authority to investigate entities that are arms of a tribe”; (ii) the lenders cannot comply with the CIDs without violating a protective order issued by the Tribal Consumer Financial Services Regulatory Commission; (iii) “the CIDs lack a proper purpose”; (iv) “the CIDs are overly broad and unduly burdensome”; and (v) the CIDs should be withdrawn or stayed pending the U. S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Seila Law LLC v. CFPB about whether the structure of the CFPB is unconstitutional.
The CFPB’s denial of the petitioners’ request addresses each of the arguments. First, it rejects that it lacks authority to investigate “arms of a tribe” based on, among other things, a Ninth Circuit case holding that the CFPA applies to tribal businesses and numerous cases holding that tribes “do not enjoy sovereign immunity from lawsuits brought by the federal government.” Second, while noting the CFPB’s “utmost respect” for, and desire to coordinate with, state and tribal regulators, the agency is not required to coordinate with such regulators before carrying out its responsibility to investigate potential violations of federal consumer law. Third, with respect to whether the CIDs have a proper purpose, the CFPB asserts, among other things, that the dismissal of the earlier lawsuit does not preclude it from bringing future actions, and moreover, even if some of the requested information relates to potentially time-barred conduct, it does not undermine the overall validity. Fourth, concerning the petitioners’ claims that the CIDs are overbroad or unduly burdensome, the CFPB states that the petitioners did not meaningfully engage during the meet-and-confer-process and have not adequately specified or identified how or why the CIDs would be unduly burdensome. Finally, regarding the constitutional issue, the CFPB notes that it has consistently stated that “the administrative process set out in the [CFPB’s] statute and regulations for petitioning to modify or set aside a CID is not the proper forum for raising and adjudicating challenges to the constitutionality of the [CFPB’s] statute.” The CFPB directs the petitioners to comply with the CIDs within 30 days of the order.
On December 13, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted final approval of a $12 million settlement to resolve allegations including unjust enrichment, usury, and violations of RICO against tribe-related lenders (lenders) that plaintiffs claim charged extremely high interest rates on consumer payday loans. According to the memorandum in support of the settlement, one lender’s “operation constituted a “rent-a-tribe,” where it originated high-interest loans through entities formed under tribal law in an attempt to evade state and federal laws.” The parties filed a preliminary settlement agreement in June. According to the approval order, the court found that “the settlement agreement is fair, adequate and reasonable,” reaffirmed certification of a final settlement class, and additionally found that “the class representatives have and continue to adequately represent settlement class members.” This settlement ends three separate putative class actions against the lenders.
On October 31, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey certified two classes of consumers alleging a payday lender and its subsidiaries charged usurious, triple-digit interest rates on short-term loans originated by a nonparty entity run by a member of a federally recognized Indian tribe. The lawsuit—which alleges, among other things, usury and consumer fraud in violation of New Jersey law, common law restitution and unjust enrichment, and violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act—was filed in 2016 with the defendants arguing that the claims were subject to an arbitration provision accompanying the loan agreement. However, as previously covered by InfoBytes, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the district court’s decision that the tribal arbitration forum referenced in the loan agreement does not actually exist and, “because the loan agreement’s forum selection clause is an integral, non-severable part of the arbitration agreement,” the entire arbitration agreement is unenforceable.
According to the plaintiffs, the defendants evaded state law usury limits by attempting to use the sovereignty of an Indian tribe, with most loans carrying an annual percentage interest rate of 139 percent. While the defendants challenged the notion that common questions about the loan agreements predominated over the individual concerns of each class member, the court determined that the loan agreements at issue have an identical structure of interest amortized over a fixed payment schedule. “Plaintiffs have therefore shown that they can use common evidence to prove their [Consumer Fraud Act] claims, and that common questions predominate,” the court stated. “Namely the nearly identical, allegedly usurious loan agreements, which caused an out of pocket loss in the form of usurious interest.” The court also dismissed the defendants’ argument that the plaintiffs’ suit was inferior to a 2018 CFPB action, which resulted in a $10.3 million civil money penalty but no restitution (previous InfoBytes coverage here), stating that “[i]ncredibly, [d]efendants argue that this CFPB action, which denied any recovery to the putative class members here, is a superior means for them to obtain relief.”
On October 31, the Michigan attorney general announced it filed a lawsuit against an online lender alleging the lender violated the CFPA and Michigan law by allegedly offering usurious loans in an “unfair, deceptive, and abusive manner” with interest rates between 388 percent and 1,505 percent. The complaint alleges that the online lender is using its affiliation with a federally recognized Indian tribe located in California to circumvent Michigan’s interest rate cap, but, “is not an arm of the tribe and therefore is not entitled to assert tribal sovereign immunity from suit.” Moreover, the complaint argues that because the lender offers loans to Michigan residents, it is operating outside of tribal boundaries and, therefore, is subject to any and all applicable state and federal laws. In addition to usurious interest rates, the complaint alleges the lender misrepresented contract terms, including various rates and fees, and refused to let consumers pay off loans early. The attorney general is seeking declaratory and injunctive relief to prevent the lender from “providing usurious loans in Michigan in the future.” Notably, this is Michigan’s first-ever lawsuit alleging violations of the CFPA.