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4th Circuit affirms certification of class action in tribal lending case
On January 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit concluded that a district court did not abuse its discretion when certifying a class action. The lawsuit alleges 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. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) 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 district court stated that, as there was “no substantive involvement” by the tribes in the lending operation and that the 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.
After the district court certified two borrower classes, the defendant appealed, arguing, among other things, that “[b]orrowers entered into enforceable loan agreements with lending entities in which they waived their right to bring class claims against him,” and that “common issues do not predominate so as to permit class treatment in this case.” Specifically, the defendant claimed that his role in the lending operations changed throughout the class period, and that individualized “proof” and “tracing” would be necessary to prove that he “participated in the direction of the affairs of the alleged enterprise” or that he received some portion of each borrower’s interest payments.
On appeal, the 4th Circuit disagreed with the defendant’s assertions. It found no reason to question the district court’s conclusion that the defendant was the “de facto” head of the lending operations throughout the class period. “And the fact that [the defendant] served as the ‘de facto head’ of the lending operations for the entire class period supports the district court’s determination that the Borrowers will be able to use common proof to show that [the defendant] ‘participated in the direction of the’ lending operations such that common questions predominate over individual questions[,]” the appellate court stated. The 4th Circuit further concluded that the “record supports the district court’s conclusion that [the defendant] lied when he said he was never involved in receiving or demanding payments on [the lending operation’s] loans.”
Brainard discusses CRA reforms in Native American lands
On July 19, Federal Reserve Vice Chair Lael Brainard spoke before the National Native Coalition Virtual Series regarding the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM). During her remarks, Brainard noted that in May, the Fed, FDIC, and OCC issued a joint notice of proposed rulemaking modernizing CRA regulations to update how CRA activities qualify for consideration, where CRA activities are considered, and how CRA activities are evaluated (covered by InfoBytes here). Brainard called this a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to strengthen the CRA to bring greater credit, investment, and banking services to the communities that have faced the greatest challenges.” She further noted that “the CRA will provide powerful incentives for banks to make investments in communities that do not have access to branches, such as in Native lands.” Her speech then focused on several aspects of the proposal that are beneficial for Native communities. She stated that the NPRM “provides greater incentives for community investments in Native Land Areas by providing enhanced clarity and specificity about what activities qualify for CRA credit.” Noting that Native community development financial institutions and minority depository institutions “are critical players in supporting credit access and investment in Native communities,” Brainard explained that the proposal provides additional certainty that activities with Treasury-certified CDFIs will qualify for CRA consideration and provides greater clarity to banks on receiving credit for activities with MDIs. She also described “another important change” of the NPRM, which is that the proposal “would result in greater CRA activity outside of where banks have branches and physical locations in order to address unmet needs in communities that have more limited access to bank branches.” Brainard concluded her remarks by reminding the audience that comments on the NPRM are due August 5.
Connecticut fines collection agency $10,000 for violating usury laws
On June 28, the Connecticut Department of Banking issued a consent order against a licensed consumer collection agency for allegedly engaging in numerous violations of state law. These include (i) collecting on loans made by unlicensed lenders affiliated with federally-recognized Native American tribes that violate state usury laws; (ii) commingling operating monies from its business account with funds in its trust accounts; and (iii) engaging in unfair or deceptive acts or practices by advertising financial products and services of unlicensed affiliates in communications with consumers. According to the order, an examination found that the company collected on loans made by unlicensed lenders affiliated with Native American tribes that charged interest rates exceeding state limits, and that the company received payments on small loans that violated other state statutes. The Connecticut Department of Banking noted that, pursuant to a Connecticut Supreme Court decision in Great Plains Lending, LLC v. Department of Banking, consumer collection agencies are prohibited “from collecting on small loans made by unlicensed persons, including lenders affiliated with Native American tribes." Such loans are considered void and unenforceable, the Department said.
While the company neither admitted nor denied any of the allegations, it voluntarily agreed to the imposition of sanctions to obviate the need for formal administrative proceedings. Under the terms of the consent order, the company must pay a $10,000 civil penalty, refund all amounts collected from Connecticut borrowers as payment on small loans made by unlicensed lenders affiliated with federally recognized Native-American tribes, implement appropriate policies and procedures, cease and desist from soliciting financial services products in its collection communications with consumers, and cease and desist from collecting, attempting to collect, and receiving payment on small loans not made in compliance with state law.
9th Circuit says CFPB can seek restitution in action against payday lender
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.”
District Court grants final approval of a $500 million tribal lending settlement
On May 12, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted final approval of 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.
Florida court grants sovereign immunity to lender and company officials
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.
District Court grants final approval in usury class action settlement
On August 16, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted final 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.
4th Circuit: Tribal lenders must face usury claims
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.”
District Court allows usury claims to proceed, says class action waivers do not bar certification
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.
District Court: Arbitration provision is severable from a voided loan contract
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.’”