Gingras v. Joel Rosette, Ted Whitford, Tim Mcinerney, Think Fin., Inc.

Decision Date18 May 2016
Docket NumberCase No. 5:15-cv-101
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Vermont
PartiesJESSICA GINGRAS and ANGELA C. GIVEN, on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs, v. JOEL ROSETTE, TED WHITFORD, TIM MCINERNEY, THINK FINANCE, INC., TC LOAN SERVICE, LLC, KENNETH E. REES, TC DECISION SCIENCES, LLC, TAILWIND MARKETING, LLC, SEQUOIA CAPITAL OPERATIONS, LLC and TECHNOLOGY CROSSOVER VENTURES, Defendants.
OPINION AND ORDER RE: CROSS MOTION FOR JURISDICTIONAL DISCOVERY AND MOTIONS TO DISMISS AND TO COMPEL ARBITRATION

(Docs. 43, 64, 65, 66, 67, 76, 77)

Plaintiffs have filed a class action against individuals and companies involved in an online lending venture operated by the Chippewa Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation in Montana (the Tribe). They claim that the "payday" loans offered by Plain Green, LLC violate federal and state law because of the usurious interest rates (between 198 and 376% annually) and other unlawful features of the loans such as the lender's automatic access to the consumer's bank account to facilitate repayment.

All Defendants have filed motions to dismiss or to compel arbitration. (Docs. 64, 65, 66, 67, 76, 77.) Also pending is Plaintiffs' Motion for Jurisdictional Discovery on the issues of subject-matter jurisdiction and arbitration. (Doc. 43.) The court heard argument on all of the pending motions on December 16, 2015. Plaintiffs filed Supplemental Authority and Supplemental Documents on January 18, 2016 (Doc. 107) and April 8, 2016 (Doc. 114), at which time the court took the motions under advisement.

Background

The facts as they appear in Plaintiff's 43-page First Amended Complaint ("FAC") (Doc. 18) may be summarized as follows.1

Plaintiffs are Vermont residents who have borrowed money from Plain Green, LLC. Plain Green holds itself out as a "tribal lending entity wholly owned by the Chippewa Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation." (Doc. 18 ¶ 2.) The reservation is located in Montana.

Plain Green operates its lending business over the internet. It has no physical place of business in Vermont or any property or employees in Vermont. Instead, borrowers reply to an internet site and apply for credit through an online application process. (Id. ¶ 21.) Within the banking industry, these loans are commonly called "payday loans" because they are frequently marketed as loans sufficient to tide the borrower over until the next paycheck. Plain Green employs subsidiaries of Think Finance, Inc. to market, administer, and collect its loans. (Id. ¶ 57.)

Plaintiffs borrowed relatively small sums of money from Plain Green for periods of up to one year. Frequently one loan would follow close on the heels of the repayment of the previous loan.

In July 2011, Plaintiff Jessica Gingras borrowed $1,050 from Plain Green at a rate of 198.17%. She repaid this loan with interest. During July and August 2012, she borrowed a total of $2,900 at a rate of 371.82%. She has not repaid the second loan. (Id. ¶¶ 48-50.)2

Plaintiff Angela Given borrowed $1,250 from Plain Green in July 2011. She completed repayment a year later. The annual interest rate was 198.45%. (Id. ¶ 60.) Within a few days, in July 2012, she borrowed $2,000. She completed repayment a year later in July 2013 at an annual interest rate of 159.46%. (Id. ¶ 61.) She also borrowed $250 in May 2013 which she repaid within a few weeks at an annual interest rate of 376.13%. In July 2013, she borrowed $3,000 at 59.83%. She has not completed repayment of the most recent loan.

Plaintiffs allege that the high interest rates violate Vermont's usury laws which permit a maximum rate of interest of 24%. See 9 V.S.A. § 41a. The loan agreements contain other provisions which Plaintiffs say violate state and federal law, including the provision for automatic access to the borrower's bank account in violation of the Electronic Funds Transfer Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1693k(1). (Doc. 18 ¶¶ 181-195.)

Plaintiffs have not sued Plain Green. Instead, they have sued Joel Rosette, who is the Chief Executive Officer of Plain Green, and Ted Whitford and Tim McInerney (the "Tribal Defendants"), who are members of Plain Green's Board of Directors. All three are sued in their official capacity for declaratory and injunctive relief only pursuant to the authority expressed in Ex Parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908).

Plaintiffs have also sued Think Finance, Inc. ("Think Finance" or "TF") and its former President, Chief Executive Officer, and Chairman of the Board Kenneth Rees. Think Finance is a Delaware corporation. Kenneth Rees is a citizen of Texas. The FAC alleges that these defendants developed a plan to make loans through a tribal entity in order to take advantage of tribal immunity from state banking laws. (Doc. 18 ¶ 80.) They control the operations of PlainGreen. They dictated the terms of the Tribe's finance code. In Plaintiffs' view, Plain Green is a shell company created by Think Finance and Mr. Rees in order to provide a layer of legal protection for a lending business which the Federal Trade Commission and state banking regulators have determined to be illegal. (See id. ¶ 3; see also id. ¶ 37 ("Plain Green's very existence is an effort to avoid liability.").) Plaintiffs allege that the tribal law relevant to this lending business and the tribal courts with potential jurisdiction over any dispute have been subverted by the money generated by Plain Green.

The next group of defendants are subsidiaries of Think Finance which perform various tasks in connection with the payday lending operation. These include TC Decision Sciences, LLC, Tailwind Marketing, LLC, and TC Loan Service, LLC. (These defendants, together with Think Finance, Inc., are referred to as the "Think Defendants.")

Finally, Plaintiffs have sued two of the financial institutions which they claim provide the funding for loans made by Plain Green. These are Sequoia Capital Operations, LLC (Sequoia) and Technology Crossover Ventures (TCV).3

Both of the loan agreements between Plain Green and Plaintiffs contain arbitration clauses. The clauses are detailed and cover several pages of the parties' loan agreements.4 The arbitration provisions require the borrowers to submit any dispute to binding arbitration, including disputes with "related third parties." (Doc. 13-5 at 50.) The borrower may opt out of the arbitration provision within 60 days of the receipt of loan funds. (Id. at 49.) The borrowermay select the procedures of the American Arbitration Association or JAMS and the arbitration may occur on the reservation or within 30 miles of the borrower's residence at the choice of the borrower. Plain Green will bear the cost of the arbitration including the filing fee and the arbitrator's costs. Each side pays its own attorneys fees. The arbitrator may award attorneys fees to the prevailing party.

The arbitrator is required to apply Chippewa Cree tribal law to the dispute. He or she is not authorized to hear class-wide claims. He or she must refer any dispute over class arbitration to a tribal court of the Chippewa Cree Tribe. The arbitrator must make written findings to support an award. Any award must be supported by substantial evidence and must be consistent with the loan agreement. The tribal court has authority to aside an award if these conditions are not met. The arbitration agreement and the loan agreement as a whole are subject to tribal law and are not subject to the laws of any state.

Analysis

I. Subject-Matter Jurisdiction

The pending motions to dismiss or to compel arbitration invoke almost all of the categories of defenses outlined in Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b). The court begins with Rule 12(b)(1)—the defense of lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.5 "A district court properly dismisses an action under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction if the court 'lacks the statutory or constitutional power to adjudicate it . . . .'" Cortlandt St. Recovery Corp. v. Hellas Telecomms., S.À.R.L., 790 F.3d 411, 417 (2d Cir. 2015) (quoting Makarova v. United States,201 F.3d 110, 113 (2d Cir. 2000)). A court lacks constitutional power to adjudicate a case where "the plaintiff lacks constitutional standing to bring the action." Id.

"The plaintiff bears the burden of 'alleg[ing] facts that affirmatively and plausibly suggest that it has standing to sue.'" Id. (alteration in original) (quoting Amidax Trading Grp. v. S.W.I.F.T. SCRL, 671 F.3d 140, 145 (2d Cir. 2011)). "In resisting a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1), plaintiffs are permitted to present evidence (by affidavit or otherwise) of the facts on which jurisdiction rests." Gualandi v. Adams, 385 F.3d 236, 244 (2d Cir. 2004). "[C]ourts generally require that plaintiffs be given an opportunity to conduct discovery on these jurisdictional facts, at least where the facts, for which discovery is sought, are peculiarly within the knowledge of the opposing party." Id.

Plaintiffs assert the following five bases for federal subject-matter jurisdiction: (1) federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331; (2) diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332; (3) class action jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332; (4) jurisdiction under RICO, 18 U.S.C. § 1965; and (5) jurisdiction under the Federal Consumer Financial Law, 12 U.S.C. § 5481. (Doc. 85 at 28.) Plaintiffs assert federal-question jurisdiction on the basis of claims arising under the Consumer Financial Protection Act of 2010 ("CFPA"), 12 U.S.C. §§ 5531(a) and 5536(a), the Federal Trade Commission Act ("FTCA"), 15 U.S.C. § 45, and the Electronic Funds Transfer Act ("EFTA"), 15 U.S.C. § 1693k(1). They also assert a civil RICO claim pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 1962(c).

The Tribal Defendants seek dismissal under Rule 12(b)(1) asserting that: (1) the action is barred by tribal sovereign immunity, and (2) the Plaintiffs lack Article III standing. Plaintiffs argue that tribal immunity and subject-matter jurisdiction are distinct concepts. They also assert that they ...

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