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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“the CIDs lack a proper purpose”; (iv) “the CIDs are overly broad and unduly burdensome”; and (v) the CIDs should be withdrawn or stayed pending the U. S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Seila Law LLC v. CFPB about whether the structure of the CFPB is unconstitutional.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.
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.”
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