No Immunity for Tribe’s Law Firm

LAS VEGAS (CN) – A law firm representing the Hualapai Tribe is not protected by sovereign immunity and cannot quash a subpoena for information on the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a federal judge ruled.
     U.S. Magistrate Judge George Foley Jr. on Friday denied the Gallagher & Kennedy law firm’s motion to quash a subpoena seeking documents on work done by a public relations firm on the tribe’s behalf.
     The Skywalk hangs out over the Grand Canyon’s western rim on the Hualapai Indian Reservation.
     A tribally chartered corporation hired Grand Canyon Skywalk Development to build the skywalk and manage its operations. Then the tribe passed an eminent domain ordinance and “condemned” Grand Canyon Skywalk Development’s contractual rights.
     Anticipating the eminent domain declaration, the tribe hired Scutari & Cieslak in March 2011 to handle its public and media relations.
     Judge Foley ruled on June 5 that “a federal civil subpoena served on an individual tribal officer or employee, as opposed to the tribe itself, does not trigger tribal sovereign immunity. Therefore, even if Gallagher & Kennedy might otherwise be immune from a suit for damages based on tribal sovereign immunity, the doctrine does not protect or excuse it from compliance with the subpoena.”
     Scutari & Cieslak subpoenaed the information after Grand Canyon Skywalk Development sued it and the tribe.
     Scutari & Cieslak claimed its agreement requires the tribe to indemnify it firm and hold it harmless against any lawsuits arising from material provided by the tribe or that the PR firm prepared and the tribe “substantially changed.”
     Grand Canyon Skywalk Development filed a federal lawsuit on April 8, 2013, accusing the tribe and the PR firm of “conspiring” on a public relations campaign to “ruin” the development company’s reputation, Foley wrote.
     The developer accused tribal officials and the PR firm of publishing “defamatory statements” and making them available to “news reporters and tribal members,” Foley said.
     The tribe and developer reached a settlement in April 2014, but the PR firm said it had performed its duties as outlined by its contract with the tribe and sought the advice of Gallagher & Kennedy beforehand.
     Scutari & Cieslak sued the tribe, claiming the contract requires the tribe to indemnify it for the work done on behalf of the tribe that led to the development company’s lawsuit.
     The tribe sought dismissal the PR firm’s complaint, and Scutari & Cieslak subpoenaed Gallagher & Kennedy for documents and other information on the PR firm’s work for behalf of the tribe.
     The law firm responded with a motion to quash the subpoena, claiming that the tribe’s sovereign immunity applies to “an Indian tribe or its legal counsel.”
     Foley disagreed.
     “The subpoena served on the Hualapai Tribe’s attorneys … does not violate [the] Hualapai Tribe’s sovereign immunity from suit and therefore is not subject to being quashed on that ground,” Foley ruled.
     Gallagher & Kennedy, Scutari & Cieslak and Hualapai Tribe officials were not immediately available for comment Tuesday.