The Supreme Court Rules Native American Tribes Do Not Have Sovereign Immunity From The Bankruptcy Code.

Posted by JIm Haller - June 15, 2023

On June 15, 2023, the court ruled that Native American tribes are subject to the automatic stay and discharge injunction of the Bankruptcy Code.

“We conclude that the Bankruptcy Code unequivocally abrogates the sovereign immunity of any and every government that possesses the power to assert such immunity.  Federally recognized tribes undeniably fit that description; therefore, the Code’s abrogation provision plainly applies to them as well.”

In an 8-1 decision (J. Gorsuch dissenting) in Lac DU Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians v. Coughlin, No. 22-227, 2023 U.S. LEXIS 2544 (June 15, 2023), the court held that the term “governmental unit” found in 11 U.S.C. § 101(27) includes Native American tribes.  As such, Native American tribes are included in the waiver of sovereign immunity pursuant to 11 U.S.C. § 106.

NACBA and NCBRC submitted an amici curiae brief in support of the Debtor along with Legal Aid Chicago and the Hon. Judith Fitzgerald, Hon. Joan Feeney, Hon. Phillip Shefferly, Hon. Eugene Wedoff, Hon. Steven Rhodes and the Hon. Carol Kenner.  The brief was submitted by Daniel J. Bussel of KTBS Law LLP and G. Eric Brunstad, Jr. of Dechert LLP.

Factual and Procedural Background

The creditor, federally recognized Tribe Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians (the Band) through its wholly owned business entity, Lendgreen, lent the Debtor, Brian Coughlin, $1,100 in the form of a high-interest, short-term loan.

Coughlin filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy before he fully repaid the loan. Lendgreen continued its efforts to collect on his debt, even after it was reminded of the pending bankruptcy petition.

Coughlin eventually filed a motion in Bankruptcy Court, seeking to have the stay enforced against Lendgreen, its parent corporations, and the Band (collectively, petitioners). Coughlin also sought damages for emotional distress, along with costs and attorney’s fees.

The Band moved to dismiss. They argued that the Bankruptcy Court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over Coughlin’s enforcement proceeding, as the Band and its subsidiaries enjoyed tribal sovereign immunity from suit. The Bankruptcy Court agreed; it held that the suit had to be dismissed because the Bankruptcy Code did not clearly express Congresss intent to abrogate tribal sovereign immunity.

In a divided opinion, the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed, concluding that the Bankruptcy Code unequivocally strips tribes of their immunity. In re Coughlin, 33 F. 4th 600, 603-604 (2022). In so holding, the First Circuit deepened a split among the Courts of Appeals on this question. Compare Krystal Energy Co. v. Navajo Nation, 357 F. 3d 1055, 1061 (CA9 2004) (holding that the Bankruptcy Code abrogates tribal sovereign immunity), with In re Greektown Holdings, LLC, 917 F. 3d 451, 460-461 (CA6 2019) (concluding the reverse).


“Petitioner Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians (the Band) is a federally recognized Indian tribe. One of the Bands businesses, Lendgreen, extended respondent Brian Coughlin a payday loan. Shortly after receiving the loan, Coughlin filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, triggering an automatic stay under the Bankruptcy Code against further collection efforts by his creditors. But Lendgreen allegedly continued attempting to collect Coughlins debt. Coughlin filed a motion in Bankruptcy Court to enforce the automatic stay and recover damages. The Bankruptcy Court dismissed the suit on tribal sovereign immunity grounds. The First Circuit reversed, concluding that the Code unequivocally strips tribes of their immunity. 33 F. 4th 600, 603.

“As an initial matter, the definition of governmental unit exudes comprehensiveness from beginning to end. Congress has rattled off a long list of governments that vary in geographic location, size, and nature. 101(27) (including municipalities, districts, Territories, Commonwealths, States, the United States, and foreign states). The provision then proceeds to capture subdivisions and components of every government within that list. Ibid. (accounting for any department, agency, or instrumentality of the United States …, a State, a Commonwealth, a District, a Territory, a municipality, or a foreign state). And it concludes with a broad catchall phrase, sweeping in other foreign or domestic government[s]. Ibid….

“The pairing of foreign with domestic is of a piece with those other common expressions. For instance, if someone asks you to identify car manufacturers, foreign or domestic, your task is to name any and all manufacturers that come to mind, without particular regard to where exactly the cars are made or the location of the companies headquarters. Similarly, at the start of each Congress, a cadre of newly elected officials solemnly swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. 5 U. S. C. 3331. That oath which each Member of Congress who enacted the Bankruptcy Code took indisputably pertains to enemies anywhere in the world. Accordingly, we find that, by coupling foreign and domestic together, and placing the pair at the end of an extensive list, Congress unmistakably intended to cover all governments in 101(27)s definition, whatever their location, nature, or type.

“It is also significant that the abrogation of sovereign immunity in 106(a) plainly applies to all governmental unit[s] as defined by 101(27). Congress did not cherry-pick certain governments from 101(27)s capacious list and only abrogate immunity with respect to those it had so selected. Nor did Congress suggest that, for purposes of 106(a)s abrogation of sovereign immunity, some types of governments should be treated differently than others. Instead, Congress categorically abrogated the sovereign immunity of any governmental unit that might attempt to assert it. …

“Reading the statute to carve out a subset of governments from the definition of governmental unit, as petitioners view of the statute would require, risks upending the policy choices that the Code embodies in this regard. That is, despite the fact that the Code generally subjects all creditors (including governmental units) to certain overarching requirements, under petitioners reading, some government creditors would be immune from key enforcement proceedings while others would face penalties for their noncompliance. And while the Code is finely tuned to accommodate essential governmental functions (like tax administration and regulation) as a general matter, petitioners would have us find that certain governments are excluded from those provisions reach, notwithstanding the fact that they engage in tax and regulatory activities too. There is no indication that Congress meant to categorically exclude certain governments from these provisions enforcement mechanisms and exceptions, let alone in such an anomalous manner. Cf. Law v. Siegel, 571 U. S. 415, 424 (2014) (declining to read into the Code an exception Congress did not include in its meticulous and carefully calibrated scheme). …

“Putting the pieces together, our analysis of the question whether the Code abrogates the sovereign immunity of federally recognized tribes is remarkably straightforward. The Code unequivocally abrogates the sovereign immunity of all governments, categorically. Tribes are indisputably governments. Therefore, 106(a) unmistakably abrogates their sovereign immunity too. …


“We find that the First Circuit correctly concluded that the Bankruptcy Code unambiguously abrogates tribal sovereign immunity. Therefore, the decision below is affirmed.”

In re Coughlin

Coughlin NACBA Amicus SCt March 2023

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