Justia Native American Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Energy, Oil & Gas Law
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Congress established the Osage reservation in Oklahoma Territory in 1872. Years later, “mammoth reserves of oil and gas” were found. Congress severed the subsurface mineral estate, reserved it to the tribe, and placed it into trust with the federal government as trustee. Royalties are distributed to tribal members listed on an approved membership roll (a headright).In previous litigation, the Claims Court found the tribe had standing and found the government liable for breaching its fiduciary duties by failing to collect the full amount of royalties and failing to invest the royalty revenue. Individual headright owners (not the present plaintiffs) attempted to intervene. The Claims Court found that the individuals had no legal interest in the dispute because they were not a party to the trust relationship. The $380 million settlement agreement stated that the tribe, “on behalf of itself and the [h]eadright [h]olders,” waived any claims relating to the tribe’s trust assets or resources that were based on violations occurring before September 30, 2011. In a federal suit, filed by individual headright owners, the Tenth Circuit held that headright owners had a trust relationship with the federal government, which was ordered to provide an accounting.In 2019, based on allegations that the accounting revealed mismanagement of the trust fund, headright owners filed the present suit under the Tucker Act and the Indian Tucker Act, citing breach of statutorily imposed trust obligations. The Federal Circuit reversed the dismissal of the suit. A trust relationship exists between the headright owners and the government and the 1906 Act imposes an obligation on the federal government to distribute funds to headright owners in a timely and proper manner. View "Fletcher v. United States" on Justia Law

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At issue in this appeal was a contract dispute between Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation (the Tribe) and Lynn Becker, a non-Indian. The contract concerned Becker’s work marketing and developing the Tribe’s mineral resources on the Ute reservation. Becker sued the Tribe in Utah state court for allegedly breaching the contract by failing to pay him a percentage of certain revenue the Tribe received from its mineral holdings. Later, the Tribe filed this lawsuit, challenging the state court’s subject-matter jurisdiction under federal law. The district court denied the Tribe’s motion for a preliminary injunction against the state-court proceedings, and the Tribe appealed. After its review, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, finding the Tribe was entitled to injunctive relief. The appellate court found the trial court’s factual findings established that Becker’s state-court claims arose on the reservation because no substantial part of the conduct supporting them occurred elsewhere. And because the claims arose on the reservation, the state court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction absent congressional authorization. Accordingly, under the particular circumstances of this appeal, the Tenth Circuit "close[d] this chapter in Becker’s dispute with the Tribe by ordering the district court to permanently enjoin the state-court proceedings." View "Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah, et al. v. Lawrence, et al." on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Pit River Tribe and environmental organizations in an action under the Geothermal Steam Act, against federal agencies responsible for administering twenty-six unproven geothermal leases located in California's Medicine Lake Highlands. Pit River alleged that the BLM's decision to continue the terms of the unproven leases for up to forty years violated the Act.Determining that it had jurisdiction to hear this appeal, the panel held that the statutory meaning of 30 U.S.C. 1005(a) is clear and unambiguous: it only permits production-based continuations on a lease-by-lease basis, not on a unit-wide basis. In this case, BLM failed to meet its burden of providing a compelling reason for the panel to depart from the plain meaning of section 1005(a). Therefore, the panel rejected BLM's argument that section 1005(a) authorizes forty-year continuations on a unit-wide basis once a single lease in a unit is deemed productive. View "Pit River Tribe v. Bureau of Land Management" on Justia Law

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Suits over oil and gas leases on allotted trust lands are governed by federal law, not tribal law, and the tribal court lacks jurisdiction over the nonmember oil and gas companies. This appeal involved a dispute over the practice of flaring natural gas from oil wells, and at issue was the scope of Native American tribal court authority over nonmembers. The Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of a preliminary injunction enjoining the tribal court plaintiffs and tribal court judicial officials and held that the district court correctly rejected the tribal court officials' argument that this suit was barred by tribal sovereign immunity.The court also held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in granting the preliminary injunction because the oil and gas companies are likely to prevail on the merits. In this case, the district court correctly concluded that the oil and gas companies exhausted their tribal court remedies by moving to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction and appealing the issue to the MHA Nation Supreme Court; the district court correctly concluded that the tribal court lacked jurisdiction over the oil and gas companies; and the balance of the remaining preliminary injunction factors, along with the oil and gas companies' strong likelihood of success on the merits, showed that the district court did not abuse its discretion by granting the preliminary injunction. View "Kodiak Oil & Gas (USA) Inc. v. Burr" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs-Appellants, a certified class of Osage tribal members who owned headrights, appealed the district court’s accounting order. Plaintiffs alleged that the government was improperly distributing royalties to non-Osage tribal members, which diluted the royalties for the Osage tribal members, the rightful headright owners. The complaint attributed this misdistribution to the government’s mismanagement of the trust assets and the government’s failure to perform an accounting. Thus, Plaintiffs sought to compel the government to perform an accounting and to prospectively restrict royalty payments to Osage tribal members and their heirs. The district court dismissed Plaintiffs’ accounting claim because it found that the applicable statute only required the government to account for deposits, not withdrawals, and that such an accounting would not support Plaintiffs’ misdistribution claim. After review, the Tenth Circuit could not say the district court abused its discretion. "The accounting the district court fashioned will certainly inform Plaintiffs of the trust receipts and disbursements and to whom those disbursements were made." View "Fletcher v. United States" on Justia Law

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The issue in this case centered on the interpretation of the "right to travel" provision Article III of the Yakama Nation Treaty of 1855, in the context of importing fuel into Washington State. The Washington State Department of Licensing (Department) challenged Cougar Den Inc.'s importation of fuel without holding an importer's license and without paying state fuel taxes under former chapter 82.36 RCW, repealed by LAWS OF 2013, ch. 225, section 501, and former chapter 82.38 RCW (2007). An administrative law judge ruled in favor of Cougar Den, holding that the right to travel on highways should be interpreted to preempt the tax. The Department's director, Pat Kohler, reversed. On appeal, the Yakima County Superior Court reversed the director's order and ruled in favor of Cougar Den. Finding no reversible error in that judgment, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed. View "Cougar Den, Inc. v. Dep't of Licensing" on Justia Law

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Under the 1887 General Allotment Act and the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, the U.S. is the trustee of Indian allotment land. A 1996 class action, filed on behalf of 300,000 Native Americans, alleged that the government had mismanaged their Individual Indian Money accounts by failing to account for billions of dollars from leases for oil extractions and logging. The litigation’s 2011 settlement provided for “historical accounting claims,” tied to that mismanagement, and “land administration claims” for individuals that held, on September 30, 2009, an ownership interest in land held in trust or restricted status, claiming breach of trust and fiduciary mismanagement of land, oil, natural gas, mineral, timber, grazing, water and other resources. Members of the land administration class who failed to opt out were deemed to have waived any claims within the scope of the settlement. The Claims Resolution Act of 2010 ratified the settlement and funded it with $3.4 billion, The court provided notice, including of the opt-out right. Challenges to the opt-out and notice provisions were rejected. Indian allotees with interests in the North Dakota Fort Berthold Reservation, located on the Bakken Oil Shale (contiguous deposits of oil and natural gas), cannot lease their oil-and-gas interests unless the Secretary approves the lease as “in the best interest of the Indian owners,” 122 Stat. 620 (1998). In 2013, allotees sued, alleging that, in 2006-2009, a company obtained Fort Berthold allotment leases at below-market rates, then resold them for a profit of $900 million. The Federal Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the government, holding that the allotees had forfeited their claims by failing to opt out of the earlier settlement. View "Two Shields v. United States" on Justia Law

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Shields and Wilson are Indians with interests on the Bakken Oil Shale Formation in the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, allotted to them under the Dawes Act of 1887. Such land is held in trust by the government, but may be leased by allottees. Shields and Wilson leased oil and gas mining rights on their allotments to companies and affiliated individuals who won a sealed bid auction conducted by the Board of Indian Affairs in 2007. After the auction, the women agreed to terms with the winning bidders, the BIA approved the leases, and the winning bidders sold them for a large profit. Shields and Wilson filed a putative class action, claiming that the government had breached its fiduciary duty by approving the leases for the oil and gas mining rights, and that the bidders aided, abetted, and induced the government to breach that duty. The district court concluded that the United States was a required party which could not be joined, but without which the action could not proceed in equity and good conscience, and dismissed. The Eighth Circuit affirmed. The United States enjoys sovereign immunity for the claims and can decide itself when and where it wants to intervene. View "Two Shields v. Wilkinson." on Justia Law

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The federal government moved the Osage Nation to the State of Oklahoma. Years later, the Nation discovered its new home contained mammoth reserves of oil and gas. The federal government appropriated itself as trustee, to oversee collection of royalty income and its distribution to tribal members. In this lawsuit, tribal members sought an accounting to determine whether the federal government fulfilled its fiduciary obligations. The district court dismissed the tribal members’ claims. Upon review of the district court record, the Tenth Circuit found the tribe was entitled to an accounting, and accordingly reversed. View "Fletcher, et al v. United States, et al" on Justia Law

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North Central Electric Cooperative appealed a district court judgment affirming a Public Service Commission order that dismissed its complaint against Otter Tail Power Company. The Commission decided it did not have regulatory authority over Otter Tail's extension of electric service to a facility owned by the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians on tribal trust land within the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. North Central argued on appeal: (1) the Commission has jurisdiction under North Dakota law; and (2) the Commission's findings were not supported by a preponderance of the evidence and did not sufficiently address North Central's evidence. Upon review, the Supreme Court affirmed, concluding the Commission did not err in deciding it lacked authority to regulate the Tribe's decision to have Otter Tail provide electric service to a tribal-owned facility on tribal-owned land within the reservation. View "North Central Electric Coop., Inc. v. Public Service Commission" on Justia Law