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Williams v. Big Picture Loans, LLC

United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

May 7, 2019, Argued; July 3, 2019, Decided

No. 18-1827

Opinion

 [*174]  GREGORY, Chief Judge:

The Lac Vieux Desert Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa Indians ("the Tribe") formed two business entities under tribal law. This appeal arises from a suit brought by five Virginia residents against those entities, Big Picture Loans, LLC and Ascension Technologies, LLC (collectively "the Entities"). In the underlying action, the Virginia residents claimed that they obtained payday loans on the internet from Big Picture and that those loans carried unlawfully high interest rates. The Entities moved to dismiss the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction on the basis that they are entitled to sovereign immunity as arms of the Tribe. After concluding that the Entities bore the burden of proof in the arm-of-the-tribe analysis, the district court found that the Entities failed to prove that they are entitled to tribal sovereign immunity.

The Entities now appeal that decision. Although the district court properly placed the burden of proof on the Entities claiming tribal [**5]  sovereign immunity, we hold that the district court erred in its determination that the Entities are not arms of the Tribe. We therefore reverse the district court's decision and remand the case with instructions to dismiss the complaint.

The Tribe entered the business of online lending in 2011 when it organized Red Rock Lending as a tribally owned LLC. Two members of the Tribe managed Red Rock, and the Tribe was its sole member. Red Rock provided loans to consumers from its offices on the Reservation and was subject to the Tribe's Tribal Financial Services Regulatory Code, which is enforced by the Tribal Financial Services Regulatory Authority. Red Rock contracted with Bellicose, a non-tribal LLC, to provide vendor management services, compliance management assistance, marketing material development, and risk modeling and data analytics development. Matt Martorello, a non-tribe member, was its founder and chief executive officer.1

Two years after the formation of Red Rock, in February 2013, the New York Department of Financial Services sent cease and desist letters to several lending entities, including Red Rock, accusing them of "using the Internet to offer and originate illegal payday [**6]  loans to New York consumers, in violation of New York's civil and criminal usury laws." Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Indians v. N.Y. State Dep't of Fin. Servs., 974 F. Supp. 2d 353, 356 (S.D.N.Y. 2013). The Tribe and entities sought a preliminary injunction based in part on a claim that New York's regulation would infringe on tribal sovereignty. The district court denied the request, however, finding that the entities had not shown a likelihood of success on the merits because their online lending to New York customers constituted off-reservation activity and could thus be properly regulated under New York's anti-usury law. See id. at 360-61. The Second Circuit affirmed this decision in October 2014. Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Indians v. N.Y. State Dep't of Fin. Servs., 769 F.3d 105 (2d Cir. 2014).

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929 F.3d 170 *; 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 19957 **

LULA WILLIAMS; GLORIA TURNAGE; GEORGE HENGLE; DOWIN COFFY; FELIX GILLISON, JR., on behalf of themselves and all individuals similarly situated, Plaintiffs — Appellees, v. BIG PICTURE LOANS, LLC; ASCENSION TECHNOLOGIES, LLC, Defendants — Appellants, and DANIEL GRAVEL; JAMES WILLIAMS, JR.; GERTRUDE MCGESHICK; SUSAN MCGESHICK; GIIWEGIIZHIGOOKWAY MARTIN; MATT MARTORELLO, Defendants.NATIONAL CONGRESS OF AMERICAN INDIANS; NATIONAL INDIAN GAMING ASSOCIATION; NATIONAL CENTER FOR AMERICAN INDIAN ENTERPRISE DEVELOPMENT; CONFERENCE OF TRIBAL LENDING COMMISSIONERS; ONLINE LENDERS ALLIANCE, Amici Supporting Appellant. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA; STATE OF CONNECTICUT; STATE OF HAWAII; STATE OF ILLINOIS; STATE OF IOWA; STATE OF MAINE; STATE OF MARYLAND; STATE OF MASSACHUSETTS; STATE OF MINNESOTA; STATE OF NEW JERSEY; STATE OF NEW YORK; STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA; STATE OF PENNSYLVANIA; STATE OF VERMONT; STATE OF VIRGINIA; CENTER FOR RESPONSIBLE LENDING, Amici Supporting Appellee.

Prior History:  [**1] Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, at Richmond. (3:17-cv-00461-REP—RCY). Robert E. Payne, Senior District Judge.

Williams v. Big Picture Loans, LLC, 329 F. Supp. 3d 248, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 127476 (E.D. Va., July 27, 2018)

Disposition: REVERSED AND REMANDED WITH INSTRUCTIONS.

CORE TERMS

Tribe, Entities, tribal, district court, immunity, weighed, sovereign immunity, lending, arms, economic development, stated purpose, factors, burden of proof, employees, arm-of-the-tribe, funds, tribal member, self-governance, non-tribal, general fund, documents, manage, loans, reinvestment, day-to-day, consumers, formation, purposes, parties, vendor

Civil Procedure, Appeals, Standards of Review, Clearly Erroneous Review, Responses, Defenses, Demurrers & Objections, Motions to Dismiss, De Novo Review, Governments, Native Americans, Tribal Sovereign Immunity, Evidence, Burdens of Proof, Allocation, Constitutional Law, State Sovereign Immunity, Abrogation of Immunity