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Tribe Immune From Age-Discrimination Suit

(CN) — Native American tribes are protected from age discrimination lawsuits under the doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity, the 11th Circuit ruled.

In its ruling on Tuesday, a three-judge panel held a lower court properly dismissed a lawsuit filed by a former employee of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians accusing the tribe of discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.

The suit, on appeal from the federal court in Mobile, Alabama, involved a longtime employee of the tribe's health department who claimed she was fired without cause and replaced by a much younger woman.

Christine Williams — whose age is described in the ruling as being "over 55" — worked with the tribe for over twenty-one years as a laboratory manager and chief medical technologist. After she was fired, she was replaced in her job by a 28-year-old.

A magistrate judge recommended, and a district judge agreed, that Williams' suit should be dismissed on the grounds that "tribal sovereign immunity deprived the court of subject matter jurisdiction."

The 11th Circuit affirmed the dismissal, finding that the plaintiff had failed to establish the tribe had waived its immunity or that Congress had abrogated the doctrine when it passed the ADEA.

Writing for the three-judge panel, U.S. District Judge C. Lynwood Smith Jr., sitting by designation, said that "the weight of authority in federal courts supports upholding the right of the Poarch Band to tribal sovereign immunity from a claim based upon the ADEA."

The plaintiff argued on appeal that Congress had intended to abrogate tribal immunity when it failed to include a specific reference to Indian tribes in the ADEA's definition of the term "employer."

According to the 11th Circuit, however, "one could just as easily conclude from the omission of any reference to Indian tribes in the text of the ADEA, related committee reports, or the floor statements of legislators during consideration of the Act that Congress never considered the ADEA's impact upon Indian tribes."

Additionally the panel found that a similar discrimination suit filed under the American with Disabilities Act, Florida Paraplegic Association, Inc. v. Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida was barred by sovereign immunity.

In that suit, the 11th circuit found that "even though the ADA generally applied to the Miccosukee Indian Tribe, suits against the Tribe were, nevertheless, barred by the doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity."

In addressing the concept of sovereignty in general, Smith noted that tribal sovereignty predates the United States itself.

"The principle that American Indian tribes possess 'sovereignty' — that they are a group of people bound together by ties of common heritage, exercising dominion over a defined geographical area, and possessing the fundamental right of self government through the enactment and enforcement of substantive laws within that territory — is a precept that preceded the creation of the United States government," wrote Smith.

Smith also wrote that "Indian tribes benefit from the same 'common-law immunity from suit traditionally enjoyed by sovereign powers.'"

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