Justia Native American Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Contracts
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The issue this case presented centered on the aftermath of an Indian tribal casino’s unsuccessful suit in tribal court against appellant James Acres following a contract dispute. After dismissal of the tribal case, Acres filed his own suit in state court against two officials of the casino, the casino’s attorneys, a tribal court judge, the clerk of the tribal court, and various other individuals and entities. He alleged, among other things, that the parties he sued (collectively, respondents) wrongfully conspired to file the lawsuit against him in tribal court. He then sought monetary relief from respondents as redress for this alleged conduct. The trial court, however, found Acres’s claims against all respondents barred by sovereign immunity and, as to the tribal judge and several others, also barred by judicial or quasi-judicial immunity. On appeal, the Court of Appeal reversed in part. Because Acres’s suit, if successful, would bind only the individual respondents, and not the tribe or its casino, the Court found those respondents were not entitled to sovereign immunity. But, as to those respondents who asserted personal immunity from suit (e.g., judicial immunity), the Court agreed those respondents, with one exception, were immune from suit. View "Acres v. Marston" on Justia Law

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The federally-recognized Native American Tribe (in California) started an online lending business, allegedly operated by non-tribal companies owned by non-tribal Defendants on non-tribal land. The Plaintiffs are Virginia consumers who received online loans from tribal lenders while living in Virginia. Although Virginia usury law generally prohibits interest rates over 12%, the interest rates on Plaintiffs’ loans ranged from 544% to 920%. The Plaintiffs each electronically signed a “loan agreement,” “governed by applicable tribal law,” and containing an “Arbitration Provision.” The borrowers defaulted and brought a putative class action against tribal officials and two non-members affiliated with the tribal lenders.The district court denied the defendants’ motion to compel arbitration and motions to dismiss on the ground of tribal sovereign immunity except for a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) claim. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The choice-of-law clauses of this arbitration provision, which mandate exclusive application of tribal law during any arbitration, operate as prospective waivers that would require the arbitrator to determine whether the arbitration provision impermissibly waives federal substantive rights without recourse to federal substantive law. The arbitration provisions are unenforceable as violating public policy. Substantive state law applies to off-reservation conduct, and although the Tribe itself cannot be sued for its commercial activities, its members and officers can be. Citing Virginia’s interest in prohibiting usurious lending, the court refused to enforce the choice-of-law provision. RICO does not give private plaintiffs a right to injunctive relief. View "Hengle v. Treppa" on Justia Law

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These appeals stemmed from an Independent Contractor Agreement (the Agreement) entered into by the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation (the Tribe) and a non-Indian, Lynn Becker. Becker alleged the Tribe breached the Agreement and owed him a substantial amount of money under the terms of the Agreement. The Tribe disputed Becker’s allegations and asserted a host of defenses, including, in part, that the Agreement was void both because it was never approved by the Department of the Interior and because it purported to afford Becker an interest in Tribal trust property. The dispute between Becker and the Tribe over the Agreement spawned five separate lawsuits in three separate court systems. Before the Tenth Circuit were two appeals filed by the Tribe challenging interlocutory decisions issued by the district court in Becker’s most recent federal action, including a decision by the district court to preliminarily enjoin the Tribal Court proceedings and to preclude the Tribal Court’s orders from having preclusive effect in other proceedings. The Tenth Circuit concluded the tribal exhaustion rule required Becker’s federal lawsuit to be dismissed without prejudice. Consequently, the Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision preliminarily enjoining the parties from proceeding in the Tribal Court action and enjoining the Tribal Court’s orders having preclusive effect in other proceedings. The case was remanded to the district court with directions to dismiss Becker’s federal lawsuit without prejudice. View "Becker v. Ute Indian Tribe, et al." on Justia Law

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The plaintiffs obtained payday loans from AWL, an online entity owned by the Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Indians. The loan agreement stated that the loan was governed by tribal law and that the borrowers consented to the application of tribal law. The plaintiffs filed a purported class action, asserting that AWL charged unlawfully high interest rates, in violation of federal and Pennsylvania law, including the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, 18 U.S.C. 1961-1968. The defendants moved to compel arbitration. The district court denied their motion, holding that the loan agreements, which provided that only tribal law would apply in arbitration, stripped the plaintiffs of their right to assert statutory claims and were therefore unenforceable. The Third Circuit affirmed. Because AWL permits borrowers to raise disputes in arbitration only under tribal law, and such a limitation constitutes a prospective waiver of statutory rights, its arbitration agreement violates public policy and is therefore unenforceable. View "Williams v. Medley Opportunity Fund II, LP" on Justia Law

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In 1854, the Washington Territory and nine Native American tribes, including the Squaxin Island Tribe (the Tribe), entered into the 1854 Treaty of Medicine Creek (the Treaty), under which the Tribe relinquished their rights to land but retained “the right of taking fish at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations . . . , in common with all citizens of the Territory.” The District Court for the Western District of Washington has interpreted “fish” under the Treaty to include shellfish. In 1978, Leslie and Harlene Robbins (Robbins) purchased property in Mason County, Washington that included tidelands with manila clam beds. In connection with the purchase of the property, Robbins obtained a standard policy of title insurance from Mason County Title Insurance Company (MCTI) which provided MCTI would insure Robbins “against loss or damage sustained by reason of: . . . [a]ny defect in, or lien or encumbrance on, said title existing at the date hereof.” For years Robbins had contracted with commercial shellfish harvesters to enter Robbins’s property to harvest shellfish from the tidelands. The issue this case presented for the Washington Supreme Court's review was whether MCTI had a duty to defend Robbins when the Tribe announced it planned to assert its treaty right to harvest shellfish from the property. The Court affirmed the Court of Appeals and remanded to the superior court for further proceedings. The Supreme Court held that because the insurance policy conceivably covered the treaty right and no exceptions to coverage applied, MCTI owed the property owners a duty to defend and, in failing to do so, breached the duty. Because this breach was unreasonable given the uncertainty in the law, MCTI acted in bad faith. Further, because the property owners did not seek summary judgment on MCTI’s affirmative defenses, the Supreme Court remanded to the superior court for consideration of the defenses. View "Robbins v. Mason County Title Ins. Co." on Justia Law

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The Moodys leased Pine Ridge Indian Reservation parcels for agriculture. The government has a trust responsibility for Indian agricultural lands, 25 U.S.C. 3701(2). The Secretary of the Interior is authorized to participate in the management of such lands, with the participation of the beneficial owners and has delegated some responsibilities to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). BIA regulations generally allow Indian landowners to enter into agricultural leases with BIA approval. Each Moody lease defined “the Indian or Indians” as the “LESSOR.” The Claims Court concluded that the Oglala Sioux Tribe signed the leases. Other lease provisions distinguished between the lease parties and the Secretary of the Interior/United States. Issues arose in 2012. The BIA sent letters canceling the leases, noting that the Moodys could appeal the decision to the Regional Director. Within the 30-day appeal period, the Moodys returned with a cashier’s check in the proper amount, which the BIA accepted. The BIA informed the Moodys that they need not appeal, could continue farming, and did not require written confirmation. Subsequently, the Moodys received trespass notices and were instructed to vacate, which they did. The Moodys did not appeal within the BIA but sued the government. The Federal Circuit affirmed the Claims Court’s dismissal of the written contract claims for lack of jurisdiction because the government was not a party to the leases, for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted because the Moodys did not have implied-in-fact contracts with the government, and for failure to raise a cognizable takings claim because their claim was based on the government’s alleged violation of applicable regulations. View "Moody v. United States" on Justia Law

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The Supreme court affirmed the judgment of the circuit court granting summary judgment in favor of Defendants in this action for summary judgment, holding that an exculpatory clause in a contract between the parties unambiguously insulated Defendants for liability in tort and contract for their good-faith acts and failures to act under the authority granted to them by the contract and contract documents.At issue was the enforceability of exculpatory clauses insulating a third party from claims of negligent design and negligent administration and interpretation of a contract. The Supreme Court held that Defendants, who were hired by the Oglala Sioux Tribe to design a road reconstruction project, were entitled to summary judgment where (1) Plaintiff failed to establish that the clause at issue contravened public policy; (2) Defendants established a prima facie case of good faith, and there was no material issue of fact in dispute on the issue of Defendants’ good-faith acts and failures to act in the interpretation and application of the contract documents; and (3) no genuine material issue existed for trial that Defendants’ design and drafting fell below a professional standard of care. View "Domson, Inc. v. Kadrmas Lee & Jackson, Inc." on Justia Law

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The First Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the complaint filed by the Narragansett Indian Tribe against federal and Rhode Island agencies concerning a highway bridge reconstruction over historic tribal land, holding that the Tribe’s claim was not the type of claim federal courts may adjudicate.The Tribe filed suit in federal district court alleging breach of contract and seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. The heart of the Tribe’s claim contended that the state of Rhode Island broke a promise made to the Tribe. The district court granted Defendants’ motions to dismiss, concluding (1) as to the federal defendants, none of the three statutes identified in the complaint waived the federal government’s sovereign immunity as to the Tribe’s claims; and (2) as to the state defendants, the Tribe alleged no basis to support the court’s exercise of jurisdiction. The First Circuit affirmed, holding (1) the National Historic Preservation Act does not waive the federal government’s sovereign immunity in connection with the bringing of this suit; and (2) as to the state agencies, the complaint lacked any basis for federal subject matter jurisdiction. View "Narragansett Indian Tribe v. Rhode Island Department of Transportation" on Justia Law

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Oklahoma and the Citizen Potawatomi Nation (the “Nation”) entered into a Tribal-State gaming compact; Part 12 of which contained a dispute-resolution procedure that called for arbitration of disagreements “arising under” the Compact’s provisions. The terms of the Compact indicated either party could, “[n]otwithstanding any provision of law,” “bring an action against the other in a federal district court for the de novo review of any arbitration award.” In Hall Street Associates, LLC. v. Mattel, Inc., 552 U.S. 576, (2008), the Supreme Court held that the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) precluded parties to an arbitration agreement from contracting for de novo review of the legal determinations in an arbitration award. At issue before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals was how to treat the Compact’s de novo review provision given the Supreme Court’s decision in Hall Street Associates. The Nation argued the appropriate course was to excise from the Compact the de novo review provision, leaving intact the parties’ binding obligation to engage in arbitration, subject only to limited judicial review under 9 U.S.C. sections 9 and 10. Oklahoma argued the de novo review provision was integral to the parties’ agreement to arbitrate disputes arising under the Compact and, therefore, the Tenth Circuit should sever the entire arbitration provision from the Compact. The Tenth Circuit found the language of the Compact demonstrated that the de novo review provision was a material aspect of the parties’ agreement to arbitrate disputes arising thereunder. Because Hall Street Associates clearly indicated the Compact’s de novo review provision was legally invalid, and because the obligation to arbitrate was contingent on the availability of de novo review, the Tenth Circuit concluded the obligation to arbitrate set out in Compact Part 12 was unenforceable. Thus, the matter was remanded to the district court to enter an order vacating the arbitration award. View "Citizen Potawatomi Nation v. State of Oklahoma" on Justia Law

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An attorney represented a Native corporation in litigation nearly three decades ago. The corporation disputed the attorney’s claim for fees, and in 1995, after the attorney’s death, the superior court entered judgment on an arbitration award of nearly $800,000 to the attorney’s law firm, then represented by the attorney’s son. The corporation paid eight installments on the judgment, but eventually stopped paying, citing financial difficulties. The law firm sought a writ of execution for the unpaid balance, and the writ was granted. The corporation appealed but under threat of the writ paid $643,760 while the appeal was pending. In a 2013 opinion the Alaska Supreme Court held the writ invalid and required the firm to repay the $643,760. The corporation was never repaid. The original law firm moved its assets to a new firm and sought a stay of execution, averring that the original firm now lacked the funds necessary for repayment. The corporation sued the original firm, the successor firm, and the son for breach of contract, fraudulent conveyance, conspiracy to fraudulently convey assets, violations of the Unfair Trade Practices Act (UTPA), unjust enrichment, and punitive damages. The firm counterclaimed, seeking recovery in quantum meruit for attorney’s fees it claimed were still owing for its original representation. The superior court granted summary judgment for the corporation on the law firm’s quantum meruit claim and, following trial, found that the son and both law firms fraudulently conveyed assets and were liable for treble damages under the UTPA. The son and the law firms appealed, arguing the trial court erred by: (1) holding that the quantum meruit claim was barred by res judicata; (2) holding the defendants liable for fraudulent conveyance; (3) awarding damages under the UTPA; and (4) making mistakes in the form of judgment and award of costs. The Alaska Supreme Court found no reversible error with one exception. The Court remanded for reconsideration of whether all three defendants are liable for prejudgment interest from the same date. View "Merdes & Merdes, P.C. v. Leisnoi, Inc." on Justia Law