WASHINGTON (CN) – The Supreme Court on Monday considered whether an Indian tribe could seek monetary damages in the Court of Federal Claims while pursuing equitable relief in district court based on the same facts.
Danielle Spinelli, representing the Tohono O’odham Nation, argued that the tribe was requesting different relief in each court. In district court, she said, the tribe was seeking an accounting of the tribal trust’s assets and correction to the trust’s balance as well as monetary damages for the government’s alleged breach of fiduciary duties, and in the Court of Federal Claims, the tribe was seeking legal damages for losses occurred by the government’s alleged mismanagement.
Justice Antonin Scalia said it was “unrealistic” to think the tribe wanted merely an accounting of its assets from the district court, calling Spinelli’s approach “fanciful.”
“You don’t want an accounting for the sake of having an accounting so that you can put the accounting in your desk – Oh look, they stole $1 million from us,” Scalia said. “You want to get the $1 million.”
Spinelli argued that the accounting had “enormous benefit” to the tribe apart from monetary relief. Spinelli said many tribes “lack basic information about what they own…what easements and rights of way have been granted over their land, what the status is of their mineral rights and timber rights.” She argued that the tribe needed the information to exercise its right to decide how its assets are managed, “and the longer that that accounting is delayed, the more the nation is harmed by the inability to do that.”
To illustrate the distinct relief being sought, Spinelli presented a hypothetical situation in which the government sold a stand of timber belonging to the tribe for $20 even though it was worth $40, then deposited $10 into the trust account. The suit in district court seeks an accounting and restatement of the accounts and equitable restitution of $10 missing from account, Spinelli said, while the suit in the Court of Federal Claims seeks to recover $20 the government should have earned as a “prudent fiduciary.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy asked why the tribe could not go to the Court of Federal Claims first and then later file suit in district court for additional relief.
Spinelli argued that the tribe needed the accounting immediately, saying if accounting uncovered additional mismanagement, the statute of limitations might expire while the district court suit was still pending.
Assistant Solicitor General Anthony Yang, arguing for the government, said the tribe was seeking to “impose itself on age-old decisions” and “restate their accounts to reflect what they think should be in the trust fund.”
Justice Stephen Breyer challenged his argument, asking if there was any relief that the tribe could not seek in the Court of Federal Claims.
Yang acknowledged that the tribe could not seek declaratory judgment or injunctive relief in the claims court.
“Well, then they have a problem,” Breyer said, “because they might want some money and they want an injunction….That’s a big choice.”
“It’s a choice that has existed since 1868,” Yang said.
Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the case because of her work as solicitor general.
The case is 09-846, United States v. Tohono O’odham Nation.