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Gingras v. Think Fin., Inc.

United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

May 12, 2017, Argued; April 24, 2019, Decided

Docket Nos. 16-2019-cv (L); 16-2132-cv; 16-2135-cv; 16-2138-cv; 16-2140-cv (Con)

Opinion

 [*117]  Hall, Circuit Judge:

The federal government and many states have laws designed to protect consumers against predatory lending practices. In this case, we must determine what happens when those laws conflict with the off-reservation commercial activities of Indian tribes. In so doing, we probe the boundaries of tribal sovereign immunity and hold that, notwithstanding tribal sovereign immunity, federal courts may entertain suits against tribal officers in their official capacities seeking prospective, injunctive relief prohibiting off-reservation conduct that violates state and substantive federal law. We also consider the specific lending agreements between these Plaintiffs and these Defendants and hold that the agreements' arbitration clauses are unenforceable [**4]  and unconscionable.

Payday loans are ostensibly short-term cash advances for people who face unexpected obligations or emergencies. The loans are typically for small sums that are to be repaid quickly—in anywhere from several weeks to a year. "Typically, online lenders charge fees and interest that, when annualized, result in interest rates far in excess of legal limits or typical borrowing rates, often exceeding 300%, 500%, or even 1,000%." Vermont Attorney General's Office, Illegal Lending: Facts and Figures, at 1 (Apr. 2014). Many states endeavored to curb such lending practices through usury laws that set caps on interest rates. For example, Vermont laws prescribe a maximum interest rate of 24% per annum. See Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 9, § 41a.

This suit involves payday loans made by Plain Green, LLC, an online lending operation, which holds itself out as a ''tribal lending entity wholly owned by the Chippewa Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation, Montana." J. App. 150. The borrowers are Plaintiffs-Appellees Jessica Gingras and Angela Given, who are Vermont residents. In July 2011, Gingras  [*118]  borrowed $1,050 at an interest rate of 198.17% per annum. She repaid that loan and borrowed an additional $2,900 [**5]  a year later, this time with an interest rate of 371.82%. She has not repaid the second loan. Also in July 2011, Given borrowed $1,250 at a rate of 198.45%. Given paid off that loan in July 2012 and, within a few days of repayment, took out another loan for $2,000 at a rate of 159.46%. She also borrowed $250 in May 2013 at a rate of 376.13%, which she repaid quickly, and in July 2013 borrowed $3,000 at a rate of 59.83%. Given has not repaid the most recent loan.

To receive their loans, Gingras and Given were required to sign loan agreements. Those loan agreements provide for arbitration in the event of a dispute between the borrower and Plain Green. One such provision is a delegation clause whereby the parties agree that "any Dispute . . . will be resolved by arbitration in accordance with Chippewa Cree tribal law." Id. 114-15. The agreement defines a "Dispute" as "any controversy or claim between" the borrower and the lender, "based on a tribal, federal or state constitution, statute, ordinance, regulation, or common law." Id. 115. "Dispute" includes "any issue concerning the validity, enforceability, or scope" of the loan agreement itself or the arbitration provision specifically. Id. A separate provision [**6]  of the agreement vests authority to decide the validity of a class action lawsuit waiver and class-wide arbitration waivers in Chippewa Cree tribal court, not in an arbitrator. Id. 265.

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922 F.3d 112 *; 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 12104 **

JESSICA GINGRAS, ON BEHALF OF HERSELF AND OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, ANGELA C. GIVEN, ON BEHALF OF HERSELF AND OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. THINK FINANCE, INC., TC LOAN SERVICE, LLC, KENNETH E. REES, FORMER PRESIDENT AND CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER AND CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD OF THINK FINANCE, TC DECISION SCIENCES, LLC, TAILWIND MARKETING, LLC, SEQUOIA CAPITAL OPERATIONS, LLC, TECHNOLOGY CROSSOVER VENTURES, JOEL ROSETTE, OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER OF PLAIN GREEN, TED WHITFORD, OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS A MEMBER OF PLAIN GREEN'S BOARD OF DIRECTORS, TIM MCINERNEY, Defendants-Appellants.

Subsequent History: Related proceeding at Swiger v. Rosette, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 210371 ( E.D. Mich., Dec. 6, 2019)

US Supreme Court certiorari denied by Sequoia Capital Operations v. Gingras, 2020 U.S. LEXIS 90 (U.S., Jan. 13, 2020)

Prior History:  [**1] Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Vermont. No. 15-cv-101 — Geoffrey W. Crawford, Judge.

Plaintiffs Jessica Gingras and Angela C. Given borrowed money from Plain Green, LLC, an online lending operation owned by the Chippewa Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation in Montana. The terms of their loan agreements provide for interest rates well in excess of caps imposed by Vermont law. Gingras and Given sued, alleging violations of Vermont and federal law. They seek an injunction against tribal officers in charge of Plain Green and an award of money damages against other Defendants.

Some Defendants moved to dismiss, arguing that tribal sovereign immunity barred the suit. All Defendants moved to compel arbitration under the terms of the agreements. The district court (Geoffrey W. Crawford, Judge) denied both motions. We hold that tribal sovereign immunity does not bar this suit because Plaintiffs may sue tribal officers under a theory analogous to Ex parte Young for prospective, injunctive relief based on violations of state and substantive federal law occurring off of tribal lands. We further hold that the arbitration clauses of the loan agreements are [**2]  unenforceable and unconscionable.

Gingras v. Rosette, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 66833 (D. Vt., May 18, 2016)

Disposition: AFFIRMED.

CORE TERMS

tribal, arbitration, Tribe, sovereign immunity, tribal official, tribal law, state law, borrowed, immunity, lending, suits, federal law, violations, parte, injunctive relief, loan agreement, federal court, arbitration agreement, tribal court, unconscionable, official capacity, district court, loans, entity, sovereignty, violation of state law, vindicate, damages, federal and state law, state official

Business & Corporate Compliance, Arbitration, Federal Arbitration Act, Orders to Compel Arbitration, Civil Procedure, Appeals, Appellate Jurisdiction, Interlocutory Orders, Collateral Order Doctrine, Governments, Native Americans, Tribal Sovereign Immunity, Standards of Review, Clearly Erroneous Review, De Novo Review, Constitutional Law, Congressional Duties & Powers, Commerce Clause, Commerce With Other Nations, Authority & Jurisdiction, State Sovereign Immunity, Abrogation of Immunity, Preliminary Considerations, Federal & State Interrelationships, Remedies, Injunctions, State & Territorial Governments, Claims By & Against, Parties, Employees & Officials, Antitrust & Trade Law, Private Actions, Racketeer Influenced & Corrupt Organizations, Remedies, Scope, Finance, Damages, Punitive Damages, Monetary Damages, Alternative Dispute Resolution, Arbitrability, Pretrial Matters, Judicial Review, Arbitration Agreements, Validity of ADR Methods, Contracts Law, Defenses, Unconscionability, Federal Arbitration Act, Contract Interpretation, Severability