United States v. Neff, 090619 FED3, 18-2282

Docket Nº:18-2282, 18-2539
Opinion Judge:CHAGARES, CIRCUIT JUDGE
Party Name:UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. WHEELER K. NEFF, Appellant in No. 18-2282 UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. CHARLES M. HALLINAN, Appellant in No. 18-2539
Judge Panel:Before: CHAGARES, GREENAWAY, JR., and GREENBERG, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:September 06, 2019
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
 
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UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

v.

WHEELER K. NEFF, Appellant in No. 18-2282

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

v.

CHARLES M. HALLINAN, Appellant in No. 18-2539

Nos. 18-2282, 18-2539

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

September 6, 2019

NOT PRECEDENTIAL

Submitted Pursuant to Third Circuit L.A.R. 34.1(a) June 27, 2019

On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania D.C. Nos. 2-16-cr-00130-001 & 2-16-cr-00130-002 District Judge: Honorable Eduardo C. Robreno

Before: CHAGARES, GREENAWAY, JR., and GREENBERG, Circuit Judges.

OPINION [*]

CHAGARES, CIRCUIT JUDGE

Charles Hallinan and Wheeler Neff were convicted of conspiring to collect unlawful debts in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), federal fraud, and other crimes. Their RICO convictions are based on their efforts to skirt state usury laws by partnering with American Indian tribes to offer usurious payday loans. And their fraud convictions are based on their defrauding consumers who sued one of Hallinan's payday businesses into settling their case for a fraction of its worth. They now appeal their convictions and sentences on numerous grounds. We will affirm.

I.

We write for the parties and so recount only the facts necessary to our decision.

Payday loans are a form of short-term, high-interest credit, commonly due to be repaid with the borrower's next paycheck. The loans are not termed in interest rates, but rather in fixed dollar amounts. The borrower is required to pay this amount - termed a fee - in order to secure the loan and is charged this amount each time the borrower misses the due date to pay off the loan. As a result of this cycle, the annual percentage rates (APR) on payday loans are exceedingly high: 400% for loans made through brick-and-mortar shops on average, and 650% for those made through the internet. Seventeen states outright prohibit these types of loans by capping the allowable APR on consumer loans at 36% or less. Twenty-seven regulate these loans by imposing licensing requirements, limiting the size of the loans or the number of renewals, or by structuring APR limits to a cap that would not all but assure the prohibition of these loans. And only six states permitted unlicensed payday lending to their residents during the indictment period.

Hallinan has been partnering with Indian tribes to offer payday loans since 2003. In 2008, after a falling out with his first tribal partner, Hallinan joined up with Randall Ginger, a self-proclaimed "hereditary chief" of a Canadian Indian tribe. They met through Neff, an attorney who previously worked with Ginger and a different payday lender. In late 2008, Neff drafted contracts by which Hallinan sold one of his companies, Apex 1 Processing, Inc., to a sole proprietorship owned by Ginger - although none of Apex 1's operations changed and Ginger never actually became involved in them.

In March 2010, Apex 1 was sued in a class action in Indiana for violating various state consumer-credit laws. The plaintiffs sought over $13 million in statutory damages ($2, 000 for five violations apiece against over 1, 300 class members). Through Neff, Hallinan hired an attorney to defend Apex 1.

Hallinan and Neff replaced Ginger with the Guidiville tribe, a federally recognized Indian tribe based in the United States, in late 2010. In 2011, they also introduced the tribe to Adrian Rubin, Hallinan's former payday-lending business partner, and Neff drafted agreements to facially transfer Rubin's payday loan portfolio to the tribe while Rubin continued to provide the money for the loans and the employees to collect on them. From 2010 until 2013, Hallinan used new entities associated with this tribe to issue and collect debt from payday loans to borrowers across the county (including hundreds with Pennsylvania residents) all of which had three-figure interest rates.

In July 2013, soon after the class was certified in the Indiana lawsuit, Neff sent Hallinan an email warning him that he faced personal liability of up to $10 million if the plaintiffs could prove that he did not really sell Apex 1 to Ginger. Neff advised: "[T]o correct the record as best we can at this stage, and present Apex 1 as owned by Ginger as intended, it would be helpful if [your accountant] could correct your tax returns and remove the reference to [Apex 1] on the returns and re-file those returns." Joint Appendix ("JA") 6890. He continued: Also, for settlement discussion purposes, it's important that Apex 1 not be doing any further business other than maintaining a minimum net worth. For that reason, if there is any business being done through Apex 1, it would be very helpful to have all such activity discontinued and retroactively transferred to another one of your many operating companies for the entire 2013 year. All that will tend to confirm that Ginger owned Apex 1 and there are only a minimal amount of assets available for settlement . . . .

Id. Hallinan forwarded this email to his accountant and wrote: "Please see the seventh paragraph down re; my tax returns. Then we can discuss this." JA 6889.

So Hallinan called Ginger and said, "I'll pay you ten grand a month if you will step up to the plate and say that you were the owner of Apex One Processing, and upon the successful conclusion of the lawsuit, I'll give you fifty grand." JA 6391. Hallinan also falsely testified in a deposition that: Apex 1 went out of business around 2010, he sold Apex 1 to Ginger in November 2008, he became vice president after the sale and only made $10, 000 a month, he resigned from Apex 1 in 2009 and stopped receiving payments, and he did not pay Apex 1's legal fees. As Neff wrote in a later email, the goal was "to avoid any potential questioning . . . as to any deep pockets or responsible party associated with Apex 1." JA 7066. In April 2014, the plaintiffs settled the Indiana lawsuit for $260, 000, which Hallinan paid through one of his payday-lending companies.

Later in 2014, the Government empaneled a grand jury to investigate Hallinan and Neff's payday-lending scheme, as well as their conduct in the Indiana class action (and Ginger's as well). As part of the investigation, the Government served subpoenas for documents on Apex 1's attorneys in the Indiana case. They produced some documents but withheld or redacted others as privileged communications with their client, Apex 1. When the grand-jury judge held that any privilege was held by Apex 1, not Ginger, Ginger and Hallinan hired attorney Lisa A. Mathewson to represent Apex 1 and assert its privilege. Ginger signed Mathewson's engagement letter as Apex 1's "authorized representative," while Hallinan signed an agreement to pay Mathewson for her representation. Over the course of two years, Hallinan paid Mathewson over $400, 000 to represent Apex 1 in the grand-jury investigation.

The Government also served document subpoenas on Hallinan's accountant. Among other documents, he produced the July 2013 email from Neff that Hallinan had forwarded to him. The Government moved to present this email to the grand jury. The district court concluded that the email was protected attorney work product but allowed it to be presented to the grand jury under the crime-fraud exception. Hallinan filed an interlocutory appeal to this Court. We held that the crime-fraud exception did not apply since no actual act to further the fraud had been performed. In re Grand Jury Matter #3, 847 F.3d 157 (3d Cir. 2017).

The grand jury indicted Neff and Hallinan and later returned a seventeen-count superseding indictment. The first two counts charged them with RICO conspiracy to collect unlawful debt in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1962(d). Counts three through eight charged them with defrauding and conspiring to defraud the Indiana plaintiffs, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 371, 1341, 1343. Counts nine through seventeen charged Hallinan with money laundering in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(2)(A).

Before trial, the Government moved in limine to admit the July 2013 email. The Government's motion was based on the argument that the July 2013 email had furthered certain tax crimes, not the fraud that this Court considered, and so it was admissible under the crime-fraud exception despite this Court's earlier decision. After a hearing at which Hallinan's accountant testified, the District Court agreed and granted the motion.

Trial took place in the fall of 2017 over ten weeks. Neff testified extensively over the course of four days, including about the sources he consulted regarding the legality of tribal payday lending. The District Court did not permit him to testify about the details of those sources or to introduce them into evidence, however. Hallinan and Neff were convicted on all counts in November 2017.

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