Supreme Court Blocks Multi-Tribal Trust Suit

WASHINGTON – In yet another loss for tribes with the Supreme Court, its justices have ruled that the Tohono O’Odham Nation is not allowed to pursue a lawsuit claiming mismanagement of tribal resources in two different federal courts at the same time.

The 7-1 ruling, handed down April 26, threw out a lawsuit by the tribe in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. The tribe had sued both in U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in December 2006, arguing that the federal government had mismanaged its trust assets, including its reservation lands, mineral resources, and income.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the court’s majority opinion that the two lawsuits were essentially the “same claim.” “Indeed, it appears that the Nation could have filed two identical complaints, save the caption and prayer for relief, without changing either suit in any significant respect,” Kennedy wrote.

The tribe had argued that the law forces them to choose between partial remedies (either an accounting, or final damages), but Kennedy said the argument was without merit. “The Nation could have filed in the CFC alone and if successful obtained monetary relief to compensate for any losses caused by the Government’s breach of duty,” Kennedy wrote. “It also seems likely that Indian tribes in the Nation’s position could go to district court first without losing the chance to later file in the CFC, for Congress has provided in every appropriations Act for the Department of Interior since 1990 that the statute of limitations on Indian trust mismanagement claims shall not run until the affected tribe has been given an appropriate accounting.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the tribe should have been allowed both suits: “When Congress bars a plaintiff from obtaining complete relief in one suit, however, and does not call for an election of remedies, Congress is most sensibly ready to have comprehended that the operative facts give rise to two discrete claims.”

The ruling is expected to impact several tribes beyond Tohono O’Odham. To date, nearly 100 tribes have filed lawsuits in federal district courts seeking a historical accounting of their trust funds and assets, while some of those tribes also have filed lawsuits for financial damages in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

Under the Supreme Court ruling, tribes will have to decide if they want a historical accounting in U.S. District Court, or a damage claim in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. If a tribe chooses a historical accounting, statute of limitations issues could impact their ability to file for separate damages.

“The consequences of the Court’s decision are significant for Indian country,” wrote Akin Gump lawyers James Meggesto and Patricia Millett on the Turtle Talk tribal legal analysis blog. “Tribes who have simultaneous litigation pending in both federal district court and the CFC may now find that subject matter jurisdiction is lacking over their CFC judgments.” The lawyers had filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of the Osage Nation in support of the Tohono O’odham Nation in the Supreme Court.

“The decision is equally important for the numerous other litigants seeking both monetary and equitable relief against the United States’ violations of law,” they wrote. “For example, if the government is engaged in an ongoing regulatory taking of property, individuals must now choose between exercising their constitutional right to obtain just compensation for that taking in the CFC and their right to prevent further constitutional injury through an injunction in federal district court. The property owner cannot obtain both forms of relief simultaneously.”

The Supreme Court ruling was consistent with the Court of Federal Claims’ decision to throw out the suit under the rationale that it did not have jurisdiction and the two lawsuits were too similar. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit disagreed, ruling that the CFC retained jurisdiction because the two lawsuits sought distinct forms of relief.

Ginsburg wrote in her dissenting opinion that it would be “less harsh” and equally possible to grant a stay while a District Court case were to advance, which would keep the statute of limitations from running out on tribes.

Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the decision because she was involved with the case when she served as solicitor general.

The Supreme Court has ruled against tribal interests in all major Indian cases before it since John Roberts became chief justice in 2005. The Native American Rights Fund and other tribal entities have been working to educate the court, especially its newer members, on tribal legal issues.

The Tohono O’Odham Nation’s suit in U.S. District Court goes on. The case argues that the U.S. government handled $2.1 billion in transactions for the tribe between 1972 and 1992, but “has never fulfilled its duty to provide a true and adequate accounting” of the trust funds.


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Supreme Court Blocks Multi-Tribal Trust Suit