(CN) - The second largest Indian tribe in the country cannot sue over the same issue in two separate courts, even though neither court can individually provide the full relief that the tribe seeks, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
The Tohono O'odham Nation, which controls a 3 million acre reservation west of Tucson in the Sonoran desert along the Arizona-Mexico border, filed the suits over assets that the United States holds in trust for the tribe's benefit. In the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the O'odham sued federal officials responsible for managing the trust, demanding equitable relief, including an accounting. The O'odham claimed that those officials had violated their fiduciary duty by giving an inaccurate accounting of trust property, improperly investing the assets held in trust and committing self-dealing.
A day after filing the aforementioned suit, the O'odham sued the government in the Court of Federal Claims over the same trust assets, this time seeking damages. Noting that a federal law bars duplicative lawsuits, the Court of Federal Claims dismissed the suit for lack of jurisdiction, but the Federal Circuit revived the case on appeal because it found that that the two suits must share operative facts and seek overlapping relief.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that the circuit made the wrong move.
"Indeed, it appears that the Nation could have filed two identical complaints, save the caption and prayer for relief, without changing either suit in any significant respect," Kennedy wrote.
Section 1500, the federal law that is fatal to the O'odham's claim, was enacted by Congress in 1868 as a check on Confederates' duplicate lawsuits over cotton after the Civil War. But even as courts have developed more overlap in the intervening century, Congress has re-enacted the law to affirm "the commitment to curtailing redundant litigation," Kennedy wrote.
Though the circuit court had said that the law no longer has a contemporary purpose, Kennedy warned that "[c]ourts should not render statutes nugatory through construction."
"In fact the statute's purpose is clear from its origins with the cotton claimants - the need to save the Government from burdens of redundant litigation - and that purpose is no less significant today," Kennedy wrote. "The conclusion that two suits are for or in respect to the same claim when they are based on substantially the same operative facts allows the statute to achieve its aim. Developing a factual record is responsible for much of the cost of litigation. Discovery is a conspicuous example, and the preparation and examination of witnesses at trial is another. The form of relief requested matters less, except insofar as it affects what facts parties must prove. An interpretation of §1500 focused on the facts rather than the relief a party seeks preserves the provision as it was meant to function, and it keeps the provision from becoming a mere pleading rule, to be circumvented by carving up a single transaction into overlapping pieces seeking different relief."
The O'odham claim that the law forces them to choose between partial remedies, but Kennedy said the argument has "no merit."
"The Nation could have filed in the CFC alone and if successful obtained monetary relief to compensate for any losses caused by the Government's breach of duty," Kennedy wrote, referring to the Court of Federal Claims. "It also seems likely that Indian tribes in the Nation's position could go to district court first without losing the chance to later file in the CFC, for Congress has provided in every appropriations Act for the Department of Interior since 1990 that the statute of limitations on Indian trust mismanagement claims shall not run until the affected tribe has been given an appropriate accounting."
Furthermore, it is "by grace and not by right" that Congress lets parties sue the government in the Court of Federal Claims for damages. "If indeed the statute leads to incomplete relief, and if plaintiffs like the Nation are dissatisfied, they are free to direct their complaints to Congress," Kennedy wrote.
After dismissing the Court of Federal Claims suit, the majority advised the O'odham to refile its claim after dismissing the original case in District Court or waiting till that case is resolved, assuming that the claim is no longer barred by the statute of limitations. Kennedy had made the same recommendation in oral arguments.
In an opinion concurring only in the judgment, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer took issue with the majority's finding that the operative facts of the case - rather than the sought-after relief - form the basis for the similarity of the two actions.
"Under the Court's reading of the statute, a plaintiff cannot pursue a claim in the CFC based on the same facts as another pending action, even when Congress has required that plaintiff to file separate actions in two courts to obtain different forms of relief necessary to make the plaintiff whole," Sotomayor wrote. "I cannot agree that §1500 demands this result."
"None of the majority's reasons for its contrary construction of the statute is convincing," the ruling states later. "In sum, the majority offers no coherent justification for its conclusion that Congress intended to preclude jurisdiction in the CFC whenever a plaintiff's claim in that court is based on substantially the same facts as a suit pending elsewhere without reference to the relief sought."
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg slammed the court's ruling in a two-page dissenting opinion.
"When Congress bars a plaintiff from obtaining complete relief in one suit, however, and does not call for an election of remedies, Congress is most sensibly read to have comprehended that the operative facts give rise to two discrete claims," Ginsburg wrote
Rather than dismissing the Court of Federal Claims case, it would be "less harsh" and equally possible to grant a stay while the District Court case advances, according to the dissent. This would also keep the statute of limitations from running out, Ginsburg added.
Tohono O'odham means Desert People in the tribe's Uto-Aztecan language. Formerly referred to as Papago, they are the only Native American tribe that live on their ancestral homelands and have never been at war with the U.S. government.