Supreme Court to Hear Tribal Contract Cost Case

     (CN) -The Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to review a D.C. Circuit ruling that the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin failed to show that extraordinary circumstances prevented it from pursuing a contract cost case against the federal government.
     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 is that the D.C. Circuit was correct in its assessment, it says 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 claims 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 i 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.
     The justices granted certiorari based on the limited question of whether the D.C. misapplied the Supreme Court’s decision in Holland v. Florida when it ruled that the tribe was not entitled to equitable tolling of the statute of limitations of its claims.
     Holland was a criminal case involving a Florida inmate who had exhausted her state court appeals, but failed to petition the federal court for a writ of habeas corpus within the one-year time limit. The justices ruled that under certain extraordinary circumstances, a court may relax that deadline.

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