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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
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SCOTUS Holds Tribe’s Delay Fatal To Its Claims

(CN) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday held the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin failed to failed to show that extraordinary circumstances prevented it from pursuing a contract cost case against the federal government.

The unanimous decision by the high court upheld a ruling by the D.C. Circuit that the tribe's decision to delay filing claims against the federal government because it expected its claims would be included in a related class action doomed its case.

The tribe petitioned the justices for a writ of certiorari in November 2014, and the federal government filed a May 26, 2015, brief urging the high court to grant it.

While the government's position was that the D.C. Circuit was correct in its assessment, it said the decision created a split between circuit courts that could stall federal efforts to settle on litigation over contract costs related to tribal health services.

The Menominee tribe claimed the government underpaid contract support costs from 1996 through 1998. However, it failed to file its complaint within a six-year prescribed by the Contract Disputes Act, and a federal contracting officer deemed the claims to be untimely.

The Menominees then turned to the D.C. District Court, arguing that the Act's limitations should have been tolled based on the tribe's assumption that its claims would be rolled into a then pending lawsuit involving the Cherokee Nation.

That lawsuit ended with the Supreme Court concluding that the federal government had systematically underpaid tribes for healthcare services provided under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.

Despite this ruling, the district court entered summary judgment for the government on the Menominee's claims, holding the tribe failed to show that it was pursuing its rights diligently and that an extraordinary circumstance had blocked those efforts.

The tribe appealed to the D.C. Circuit, but asked the appellate court to hold off on deciding that case pending a ruling in a similar case then in the Federal Circuit.

The circuit eventually decided the case in favor of the Arctic Slope Native Association, establishing a precedent for a looser application of equitable tolling under the law.

Despite this, the D.C. Circuit in September 2014 upheld the lower court's ruling against the Menominee tribe. In doing so, it said the tribe's dilemma was caused by its mistakenly believing it would be a member of the Cherokee Nation class action, rather than by something entirely beyond its control.

In petitioning the justices for certiorari, the tribe argued that the Federal Circuit's opinion and the D.C. Circuit's opinion are in irreconcilable conflict with one another.

"Unless and until reconciled by this Court, the conflict will almost certainly undermine fairness and consistency in the administration of justice in the wide array of civil and criminal context in which equitable tolling arises," the petition said.

"Meanwhile, the D.C. Circuit's decision denies the Menominee Indian tribe the right to full recovery under its Indian Self-Determination contract ... even as other tribes and tribal organizations many vindicate that right by filing their claims in a different forum," the petition continued.

On Monday, the Supreme Court found that the tribe had unilateral authority to present its claims in a timely manner, and that none of its excuses qualified as "extraordinary circumstances" that would have supported its request for equitable tolling.

The tribe's "mistaken reliance on the putative Cherokee Nation class action was not an obstacle beyond its control," Justice Samuel Alito, Jr. wrote for the court. "As the Tribe conceded ... it could not have been a member of the putative Cherokee Nation class because it did not present its claims to an IHS contracting officer before class certification was denied."

"Before then, the Tribe had unilateral authority to present its claims and to join the putative class. Presentment was blocked not by an obstacle outside its control, but by the Tribe's mistaken belief that presentment was unneeded," Alito said.

The court went on to find other excuses offered by the tribe even less compelling.

"Its belief that presentment was futile was not an obstacle beyond its control but a species of the same mistake that kept it out of the putative Cherokee Nation class," Alito wrote. "And the fact that there may have been significant risk and expense associated with presenting and litigating its claims is far from extraordinary.

"Finally, the Tribe urges us to consider the special relationship between the United States and the Indian tribes," the justice continued. "We do not question the 'general trust relationship between the United States and the Indian tribes,' but any specific obligations the Government may have under that relationship are 'governed by statute rather than the common law.'"

The court pointed out that both the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act and the Contract Disputes Act of 1978 establish "a clear procedure for the resolution of disputes over ISDA contracts, with an unambiguous 6-year deadline for presentment of claims. The 'general trust relationship' does not override the clear language of those statutes."

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