Justia Native American Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
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The federally-recognized Native American Tribe (in California) started an online lending business, allegedly operated by non-tribal companies owned by non-tribal Defendants on non-tribal land. The Plaintiffs are Virginia consumers who received online loans from tribal lenders while living in Virginia. Although Virginia usury law generally prohibits interest rates over 12%, the interest rates on Plaintiffs’ loans ranged from 544% to 920%. The Plaintiffs each electronically signed a “loan agreement,” “governed by applicable tribal law,” and containing an “Arbitration Provision.” The borrowers defaulted and brought a putative class action against tribal officials and two non-members affiliated with the tribal lenders.The district court denied the defendants’ motion to compel arbitration and motions to dismiss on the ground of tribal sovereign immunity except for a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) claim. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The choice-of-law clauses of this arbitration provision, which mandate exclusive application of tribal law during any arbitration, operate as prospective waivers that would require the arbitrator to determine whether the arbitration provision impermissibly waives federal substantive rights without recourse to federal substantive law. The arbitration provisions are unenforceable as violating public policy. Substantive state law applies to off-reservation conduct, and although the Tribe itself cannot be sued for its commercial activities, its members and officers can be. Citing Virginia’s interest in prohibiting usurious lending, the court refused to enforce the choice-of-law provision. RICO does not give private plaintiffs a right to injunctive relief. View "Hengle v. Treppa" on Justia Law

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This appeal arose from a suit brought by five Virginia residents against two business entities formed under tribal law. In the underlying action, the residents claimed that they obtained payday loans on the internet from Big Picture and that those loans carried unlawfully high interest rates. The district court held that the entities failed to prove that they were entitled to tribal sovereign immunity.The Fourth Circuit held that, although the district court properly placed the burden of proof on the entities claiming tribal sovereign immunity, the district court erred in its determination that the entities are not arms of the Lac Vieux Desert Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. Accordingly, the court reversed and remanded with instructions to dismiss the complaint View "Williams v. Big Picture Loans, LLC" on Justia Law