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On May 23, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a district court’s judgment finding an online loan servicer and its affiliates liable for a deceptive loan scheme. However, the appellate court vacated the district court’s order, which had imposed a $10 million civil penalty (rather than the requested penalty of over $50 million) and had declined the CFPB's request for $235 million in restitution. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2018, the district court ordered the defendants to pay the civil penalty for offering high-interest loans in states with usury laws barring the transactions after determining in September 2016 that the online loan servicer was the “true lender” of the loans that were issued through entities located on tribal land (covered by a Buckley Special Alert). At the time, the district court found that a lower statutory penalty was more appropriate than the CFPB’s requested amount because the Bureau failed to show the company “knowingly violated the CFPA” or acted “recklessly.” In rejecting the Bureau’s requested restitution amount, the district court found that the agency had not put forth any evidence that the defendants “intended to defraud consumers or that consumers did not receive the benefit of their bargain from the [program]” for restitution to be an appropriate remedy.
According to the 9th Circuit, the district court applied the wrong legal analysis in 2018 when it assessed only a $10 million civil money penalty against the defendants and no restitution payments to consumers harmed by the improper loans. By applying federal common law choice-of-law principles, the appellate court declined to apply tribal law, holding that state laws applied to the loans, thus rendering them invalid. The appellate court determined that the defendants acted recklessly when they attempted to collect on invalid debts after counsel advised in 2013 that such actions were likely illegal. While the defendants shut down the tribal lending program for new loans, the 9th Circuit said they continued to collect on existing loans. “We conclude that from September 2013 on, the danger that [defendants’] conduct violated the statute was ‘so obvious that [defendants] must have been aware of it,’” the appellate court wrote. Noting that penalties for “reckless” violations under tier two were appropriate beginning September 2013, the appellate court ordered the district court to recalculate the civil penalty on remand. The 9th Circuit also directed the district court on remand to reconsider the appropriate restitution without relying on irrelevant considerations that motivated its earlier decision, including (i) whether defendants acted in bad faith; and (ii) “whether consumers received the benefit of their bargain.” Moreover, the appellate court held that the district court erred by stating “that the ‘proposed restitution amount [should be] netted to account for expenses.’”
The 9th Circuit also concluded that the district court was correct in holding one of the individual defendants personally liable for the company’s conduct. Furthermore, the appellate court held that the defendants’ argument that the structure of the Bureau is unconstitutional did not affect the validity of the lawsuit (which was filed when the Bureau was headed by lawfully appointed former Director Richard Cordray), writing that, as in Collins v. Yellen (covered by InfoBytes here), “the unlawfulness of the removal provision does not strip the Director of the power to undertake the other responsibilities of his office.”
On May 12, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia preliminarily approved a nearly $500 million class action settlement resolving allegations that tribal online lending companies charged usurious interest rates. Plaintiffs’ filings outline their class action against tribal entities, as well as several of the entities’ non-tribal business partners (individual defendants), for making and collecting on high-interest loans.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit previously upheld a district court’s denial of defendants’ bid to dismiss or compel arbitration in the case (covered by InfoBytes here). The 4th Circuit concluded that the arbitration clauses in the loan agreements impermissibly forced 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 was 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.”
Following more than three years of litigation, the parties eventually reached a settlement that will include tribal officials canceling approximately $450 million in debt. As part of the settlement, the tribal officials will eliminate the balance on any outstanding loans on the basis that the debts are disputed, cease all collection activity, and will not sell, transfer, or assign any outstanding loans for collection. Tribal officials will also request deletion of any negative tradelines for loans in the name of tribal officials or tribal corporations, and will pay an additional $1 million to cover the costs of notice and administration for the settlement and $75,000 to go towards service awards. Additionally, the individual defendants will create a $39 million common fund that will go to class members who repaid unlawful amounts on their loans. Class counsel is also seeking attorneys’ fees and costs totaling around $13 million.
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 April 16, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted preliminary approval of a class action settlement resolving a purported scheme to unlawfully use tribe-owned firms to make online short-term loans and charge triple-digit interest rates. According to the memorandum of law in support of plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary approval of class action settlement and the stipulation and agreement of settlement, the district court previously approved two class settlements related to the lending enterprise. The first resulted in the purported lender and others: (i) repaying over $53 million dollars in cash; and (ii) forgiving over $380 million dollars of debt owed by consumers who took out loans with three lending companies. However, these settlements did not resolve every claim surrounding the purported scheme, and did not resolve claims with the settling defendant. The plaintiffs claimed that the settling defendant assisted the purported lender’s operations despite a corporate spinoff in May 2014, alleging that “[b]ecause many [of the purported lender’s] employees with institutional knowledge of and involvement in the company’s rent-a-tribe lending business were quickly transferred to [the settling defendant], [the purported lender] required and depended on continued involvement by [the settling defendant] and its employees in operating its rent-a-tribe lending business, which involvement was freely and often provided.” Under the terms of the preliminarily approved settlement, the settling defendant must provide monetary relief to class members totaling approximately $45 million.
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 September 16, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama granted a defendant tribal payday lender’s motion to dismiss and compel arbitration, ruling that an arbitration agreement in a loan contract is still valid even if an arbitration panel found the contracts were void. The plaintiff initiated an arbitration proceeding against the defendant alleging that payday loan contracts carrying interest rates between 200 and 830 percent were void because the defendant was not licensed under the Alabama Small Loans Act to extend such loans. An American Arbitration Association panel determined, among other things, that the defendant had waived any tribal sovereign immunity, “the transactions involved off-reservation commercial activities to which sovereign immunity does not apply,” and that the loans were entirely void because each of the loans was extended without a license. The plaintiff filed suit in state court to confirm the arbitration award and pursue a class action on the premise that the loans are usurious and should be declared void. The defendant removed the case to federal court and asked the court to dismiss the proposed class action and compel arbitration. The district court agreed with the defendant that the arbitration agreement in the voided loan contract remained binding despite the arbitrator’s earlier determination in the plaintiff’s favor. Specifically, the court disagreed with the plaintiff’s argument that the arbitrator’s determination meant that “no aspect of the contact survives,” stating that the plaintiff “overlooks a central tenet in binding precedential arbitration law: severability.” According to the court, “‘[a]s a matter of substantive federal arbitration law, an arbitration provision is severable from the remainder of the contract.’”
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.”
On July 20, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia certified a “rent-a-tribe” class action alleging an individual who orchestrated an online payday lending scheme violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO), engaged in unjust enrichment, and violated Virginia’s usury law by partnering with federally-recognized tribes to issue loans with allegedly usurious interest rates. The plaintiffs alleged the defendant partnered with the tribes to circumvent state usury laws even though the tribes did not control the lending operation. The court ruled that, as there was “no substantive involvement” by the tribes in the lending operation and evidence showed that the defendant was “functionally in charge,” the lending operation—which allegedly charged interest rates exceeding Virginia’s 12 percent interest cap—could not claim tribal immunity. The plaintiffs moved to certify two RICO classes, distinguished from each other based on the lending entity, each with two sub-classes of borrowers: (i) a usury sub-class of borrowers who either paid any principal, interest, or fees on their loans; and (ii) a unjust enrichment subclass of borrowers who paid any amount on their loans. The defendant challenged class certification, arguing that “due to his changing roles” in the lending operation over the class period “differences between class members will result in a need for a series of complicated mini-trials.” In certifying the two RICO classes, the court called the defendant’s recommendation to bring individual lender suits “an unnecessary and untenable burden on the judicial system.” Furthermore, the court wrote that “[w]ith respect to [p]laintiffs’ unjust enrichment claims, [the defendant] also attempts to argue that some [p]laintiffs did not confer a benefit on [the defendant] because they paid back less than they received on their loans.” However, the court noted that because Virginia law states that any contract in violation of the state’s usury law is void, “any money paid on a void contract could constitute a benefit for the purposes of an unjust enrichment.”
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.”
- Buckley Webcast: State supervision, enforcement, and multistate coordination
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss “Latest on AML regulations and impact of economic sanctions” at a Mortgage Bankers Association webinar
- Hank Asbill to discuss “Ethical issues at sentencing” at the 31st Annual National Seminar on Federal Sentencing
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss “Fundamentals of financial crime compliance” at the Practicing Law Institute
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss “Ongoing CDD: Operational considerations” at NAFCU’s Regulatory Compliance & BSA Seminar