Back

The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act does not confer jurisdiction on federal district courts to hear actions brought by tribes against tribe members

California

,

USA

Intratribal Conflicts Will Not Be Heard in Federal Courts In Newtok Village v. Patrick, No. 21-35230 (9th Cir. Dec. 22, 2021), the Old Council of Newtok Village (the “Tribe”), a federally recognized Alaskan Native tribe, asserted that the underlying case did not arise under the Constitution or laws of the United States and therefore should be dismissed. In the underlying action, the New Council of Newtok Village sued the Old Council and attained an injunction that prohibited the Old Council members and former tribal administrators from misrepresenting themselves as the Tribe’s legitimate governing body to federal, state, and private agencies. The New Council argued that the case concerned a federal question for jurisdictional purposes: who is the federally recognized tribal entity for contracting? The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act applies only to suits by Indian tribes or tribal organizations against the United States The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit explained that the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (“ISDEAA”), which confers jurisdiction on federal district courts to hear disputes regarding self-determination contracts, applies only to suits by Indian tribes or tribal organizations against the United States and does not authorize an action by a tribe against tribe members. No substantial federal question The substantial federal question doctrine, also known as the Grable test, permits federal courts to hear certain claims recognized under state law that nonetheless turn on substantial questions of federal law. The standard for a substantial federal question is met where a federal issue is: (1) necessarily raised; (2) actually disputed; (3) substantial; and (4) capable of resolution in federal court without disrupting the federal-state balance approved by Congress. A state law claim presents a justiciable federal question only if it satisfies both the well-pleaded complaint rule and passes the substantial federal question test. The Court found the New Council’s complaint did not satisfy the well-pleaded complaint rule because it did not specify facts showing that the construction and effect of the ISDEAA or any other federal law was an essential element of their claims. Instead, the complaint asserted common law tort and conversion allegations. Additionally, this case concerned the federal-tribal balance, not the federal-state balance as contemplated under the substantial federal question test. Intratribal disputes are generally nonjusticiable in federal courts The Court found that the New Council’s claims were not of federal nature and relied primarily on tribal law for resolution. The Court stated it would not risk eroding tribal sovereignty by injecting the federal court into intratribal conflicts. Disposition The Court vacated the judgment, permanent injunction, and attorneys fees award and remanded the case with instructions for the district court to enter an order of dismissal without prejudice to repleading the complaint if the plaintiffs could establish a federal foundation for their claims.

April 14, 2022
Newtok Village v. Patrick, No. 21-35230 (9th Cir. Dec. 22, 2021)
Federal Courts (9th Circuit)