By Chad M. Zimlich

On Monday, March 16, 2015, the Fourth Circuit in Moses v. CashCall, Inc., a published civil opinion, considered an appeal from a district court affirmation of a bankruptcy court decision from the Eastern District of North Carolina.

The appeal centered around whether claims for declaratory relief and for monetary damages asserted by Oteria Moses, a resident of Goldsboro, North Carolina, against CashCall, Inc. were subject to arbitration. The bankruptcy court retained jurisdiction over both claims, denying CashCall’s motions to compel arbitration. With respect to the claim of monetary damages, the bankruptcy court also made recommended findings of fact and conclusions of law. The district court affirmed the bankruptcy court’s decision.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit held that that the district court did not err in affirming the bankruptcy court’s exercise of discretion to retain in bankruptcy Moses’ first claim for declaratory relief. However, the majority of the Court found that the district court erred in retaining in bankruptcy Moses’ claim for damages under the North Carolina Debt Collection Act and denying CashCall’s motion to compel arbitration of that claim. As to this part of the holding, the judges were split three ways, Judges Gregory and Davis for concurring in a judgment reversing the issue of arbitration for the money damages, and Judge Niemeyer dissenting.

A Question of Where the Case Belongs: Bankruptcy or Arbitration

The issue that the Fourth Circuit was confronted with was whether it was appropriate for either of Moses’ claims to be submitted to arbitration, or if one or both claims required the use of the bankruptcy court system. The question may seem simple, however, there were two distinct inquiries regarding each claim centered on the jurisdiction that the bankruptcy court had.

Loan Sharking By Western Sky

Facing financial difficulties, Moses signed a Western Sky Consumer Loan Agreement (“Loan Agreement”) on May 10, 2012, and agreeing to pay Western Sky, or any subsequent holder of the debt, $1,500 plus 149% interest. Pursuant to the agreement, Western Sky gave Moses $1,000, and retained $500 as a “prepaid finance charge/origination fee.” The Loan Agreement stated that the annual percentage rate for the loan was 233.10%, with the amount of all scheduled totaling $4,893.14. North Carolina law limits interest rates to a maximum of 16%. The Loan Agreement also gave Western Sky’s address as being in South Dakota and stated that the agreement was subject to the Indian Commerce Clause of the Constitution. Additionally, Western Sky was not licensed to make loans in North Carolina.

The Loan Agreement provided that any disputes relating to it were to be resolved by arbitration “conducted by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Nation.” Lastly, the Loan Agreement stated that the arbitration could take place either on tribal land or within 30 miles of Moses’ residence, but in either case the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe would retain sovereign status or immunity.

Three days after signing the Loan Agreement, Moses received a notice from Western Sky that the Agreement had been sold to WS Funding, LLC, a subsidiary of CashCall, Inc., and would be serviced by CashCall. Three months later Moses filed a Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition in the Eastern District of North Carolina. One week later, CashCall filed a proof of claim in the bankruptcy proceeding, asserting that Moses owed it $1,929.02. Moses objected on the basis the loan was not enforceable in North Carolina, both because of the unlicensed lending and the 16% limit. Moses also filed an adversary proceeding against CashCall seeking a declaratory judgment that the loan was void under North Carolina law, as well as damages against CashCall for its illegal debt collection.

After the bankruptcy court approved Moses’ bankruptcy plan, CashCall filed simultaneous motions to withdraw it’s claims, or, in the alternative, to compel Moses to arbitrate pursuant to the Loan Agreement. Because Moses had already filed an adversary proceeding against CashCall, CashCall could not withdraw its proof of claim without court approval. Moses objected to CashCall’s motion to withdraw its proof of claim. She contended that CashCall, which had 118 similar claims in the Eastern District of North Carolina, sought to withdraw its proof of claim in her case only after she had challenged its practices. The purpose of the withdrawal, Moses argued, was simply an attempt by CashCall to divest the bankruptcy court of jurisdiction.

The bankruptcy court denied CashCall’s motion to dismiss the complaint or to stay and compel arbitration, concluding that Moses’ claim for a declaratory judgment that CashCall’s loan was void was a “core” bankruptcy claim. As to Moses’ second claim, which sought damages, the court concluded that the claim was non-core, over which it could only recommend findings of fact and conclusions of law for a decision by the district court. The bankruptcy court also denied CashCall’s motion to withdraw its proof of claim, finding that the withdrawal would prejudice Moses by removing the court’s jurisdiction over the other causes of action. CashCall filed interlocutory appeals on both counts to the district court. The district court affirmed the bankruptcy court’s orders.

Whether a Claim is Statutorily or Constitutionally Core, and Tensions Between the FAA and Bankruptcy Code

The rule iterated by the Fourth Circuit was the basis of this decision hinges on whether or not the claim in question was constitutionally core according to the Supreme Court’s decision in Stern v. Marshall. The Court there held that “Article III of the Constitution prohibits bankruptcy courts from issuing final orders regarding statutorily core claims unless they ‘stem[] from the bankruptcy itself or would necessarily be resolved in the claims allowance process.’” That means that, should the claim be based in a statute but raise no constitutional questions, it should be treated as statutorily non-core and the district court is given de novo review, making it the court of first impression.

However, a further issue was the tension between the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), which favors the use of arbitration and grants the decision to arbitrate to the court of first impression, and the Bankruptcy Code, which gives the bankruptcy courts their jurisdiction and lays out a completely separate purpose intended by Congress.

The Claim of a Declaratory Judgment Belonged to the Bankruptcy Court

The Court first noted that previous courts that have considered agreements similar to the Loan Agreement, specifically the Eleventh and Seventh Circuits and the District of South Dakota, have “found that the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has no laws or facilities for arbitration and that the arbitration procedure specified is a ‘sham from stem to stern.’” The Fourth Circuit agreed and found that the Loan Agreement was clearly illegal under North Carolina law due to the extreme interest rate, however that did not negate the fact that the agreement specified that Indian tribal law would apply and that any dispute under the agreement would be resolved by the Sioux Tribe’s arbitration.

However, while arbitration agreements should normally be enforced, in this case the Court found that the fundamental public policy present in the Bankruptcy Code was in direct conflict with a decision to arbitrate. Meaning that, should it be declared that the Loan Agreement was illegal this would have a direct and substantial impact on Moses’ Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceedings. Therefore, as the bankruptcy court had first impression for this claim, its denial of arbitration was not a violation of its discretion.

The Problem of the Claim of Damages and a Flurry of Opinions

Moses’ claim for damages was based on the North Carolina Debt Collection Act, and the majority’s opinion found no inherent conflict between the Bankruptcy Code and the effect that arbitration would have on Moses’ bankruptcy proceeding. However, even the two-judge majority split in their reasoning for this conclusion.

Judge Gregory relied on the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Ackerman v. Eber in stating that bankruptcy courts generally have no discretion in refusing to arbitrate a claim that is found to not be constitutionally core. His concurrence went on to state that, while the claims shared a common question, the claim of damages did not pose an inherent conflict with the reorganization of Moses’ estate under the Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceeding. Additionally, Judge Gregory saw no issue with conflicting results, as the arbitrator’s order would be subject to enforcement by the district court. In this case, any conflicts that may arise would not be “inherent” and “sufficient” to the point that they overrode the presumption in favor of arbitration.

Judge Davis relied on a previous Fourth Circuit decision from 2005, In re White Mountain Mining Co., L.L.C., which spoke indirectly on the subject. Judge Davis’ opinion, while reflecting on the “odiousness” of CashCall’s practices and perhaps faulty arbitration procedures, emphasized the fact that the non-core claim of damages that Moses had in this case would in no way be frustrated by arbitration itself, and therefore the lack of direct conflict required deference to the FAA.

Judge Niemeyer’s dissent argued that the district court’s exercise of discretion to retain the damages claim presented the same question as the declaratory judgment. So in this view, if the loan agreement were invalid, separating the two claims would be inefficient and create issues of collateral estoppel. Therefore, the district court had not abused its discretion.

Bankruptcy Court May Keep Declaratory Judgment But Must Lose Damages Claim

The Fourth Circuit concluded that resolution of Moses’ claim for a declaratory judgment could directly impact the claims against her estate, and arbitration with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe would “significantly interfere” with the bankruptcy reorganization. Therefore, the district court was not in error in upholding the bankruptcy court’s decision. However, the money damages sought were not in direct conflict with the Bankruptcy Code and its procedures for Moses under Chapter 13, and the question of damages was one for an arbitrator and not the bankruptcy court.