The complaint for this class action outlines yet another “rent-a-tribe” arrangement in which a Native American tribe allegedly acts as a front for a payday loan scheme to charge astronomical interest rates to get around state or federal usury laws.
Five classes have been proposed for this action. The California Class is all California residents from whom defendants attempted to collect loans and/or who engaged in a loan transaction with defendants, between June 11, 2015 and the date of final judgment in this case. The other state classes are the same except for the beginning of the class period. The Ohio Class period begins on June 11, 2014. The Wisconsin Class and Texas Class periods begin on June 11, 2016.
The fifth class relates to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The RICO Class is all US residents from whom defendants attempted to collect loans and/or who engaged in a loan transaction with defendants, between June 11, 2014 and the date of final judgment in this case.
Big Picture Loans, LLC makes loans online. It claims to be owned and operated by the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. In reality, the complaint claims, a company named Bellicose Capital generated leads, funded the loans, controlled the underwriting, handled the daily operations of the company—and made the bulk of the profits.
The complaint says that most of the activities associated with the loans, such as taking calls, processing payments, and servicing the loans, took place off the reservation. In fact, it claims that most of the activities were carried out in Bellicose’s locations in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.
The tribe, the complaint says, had nothing to do with the company’s actual operations, made no decisions about income or expenses, and had no access to its accounts. As set out by the complaint, the only involvement of the tribe was to lend its name and collect a mere 2% of the profits.
The complaint claims that Big Picture and Bellicose were owned by Matt Martorello, who is not a member of the tribe. In 2016, Martorello sold Bellicose to the tribe for $1.3 million and it was renamed Ascension Technologies. However, the complaint claims that this was intended to shield it from regulation and that Ascension continues to be operated by the same individuals who ran Bellicose.
The four plaintiffs in this case, from California, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Texas, borrowed money from Big Picture at usurious interest rates that are illegal in their states. For example, one was charged an annual percentage rate of over 660%; another has paid over $620 on a loan of $300, the majority of which has been credited to interest and other fees.
Big Picture is not licensed to make loans in any of the plaintiffs’ states. The complaint claims that its dispute resolution provisions are also a sham and unenforceable.