Federal Court Dismisses Pala Band Membership Claims On Sovereign Immunity Grounds

Here are the materials in Allen v. Smith (S.D. Cal.):

17.1 – Defendants’ Memorandum Supporting Motion to Dismiss

18 – Plaintiffs’ Opposition to Motion to Dismiss

23 – Defendants’ Reply Supporting Motion to Dismiss

26 – Plaintiffs’ Notice of Recent Authorities

28 – Defendants’ Response to Notice of Recent Authorities

31 – Plaintiffs’ Notice of Additional Recent Authorities

33 – Defendants’ Response toNotice of Additional Recent Authorities

36 – District Court Order Dismissing Action

Judge William Q. Hayes of the Southern District of California ruled that sovereign immunity barred claims against the Pala Band of Mission Indians seeking enrollment in the Tribe and money damages. Importantly, the court distinguished the Ninth Circuit’s recent decision in Maxwell v. San Diego County.

Here are some key excerpts:

The Maxwell court distinguished the facts of its case from Hardin v. White Mountain Apache Tribe, 779 F.2d 476 (9th Cir. 1985), a case where the plaintiff sued tribal council members for allegedly ordering tribal police to eject plaintiff from tribal land. Id. at 478. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Hardin concluded that the council members “had act[ed] in their representative capacity and within the scope of their authority.” Id. at 479. “Holding the defendants [in Hardin] liable for their legislative functions would … have attacked the very core of tribal sovereignty.” Maxwell, 2013 WL 542756 at *12.

. . .

Based upon the “essential nature and effect” of the injunctive and declaratory relief sought in the Complaint, the Court finds that the Pala Tribe is the “real, substantial party in interest” in this case. Maxwell, 2013 WL 542756 at *11. Only the Pala Tribe, whose sovereign immunity is unquestioned, could satisfy the relief sought in the Complaint, i.e. the reinstatement of Plaintiffs as members of the Tribe. Defendants, as members of the Executive and Enrollment Committees, “possess the power” to grant Plaintiffs that relief “on behalf of the tribe.” Id. Accordingly, the Court finds that this action, as alleged, is fundamentally one against the Pala Tribe and that Plaintiffs have sued the individual Defendants in their official capacities.

. . .

The Court finds that the relief sought in this Complaint would “require affirmative action by the sovereign,” i.e. the Pala Tribe’s re-enrollment of Plaintiffs. Larson, 337 U.S. at 691 n.11. Such a remedy would operate against the Pala Tribe, impermissibly infringing upon its sovereign immunity. See generally Lewis v. Norton, 424 F.3d 959 (9th Cir. 2005) (“Courts have held that tribal immunity bars suits to force tribes to comply with their membership provisions, as well as suits to force tribes to change their membership provisions.”(citations omitted)); Santa Clara Pueblo, 436 U.S. at 72 n.32 (“A tribe’s right to define its own membership for tribal purposes has long been recognized as central to its existence as an independent political community…. Given the often vast gulf between tribal traditions and those with which federal courts are more intimately familiar, the judiciary should not rush to create causes of action that would intrude on these delicate matters.”); Imperial Granite Co., 940 F.2d at 1272 (“[A] tribe’s immunity is not defeated by an allegation that it acted beyond its powers.”). Based upon the factual allegations of the Complaint and the nature and effect of the relief sought, the Court concludes that Defendants acted in their official capacities and within the scope of their authority when they made the membership determinations at issue in this case.

5 thoughts on “Federal Court Dismisses Pala Band Membership Claims On Sovereign Immunity Grounds

  1. Erick March 13, 2013 / 6:52 pm

    The only silver lining I could have seen from the Maxwell case would have been that disenrollees could have another avenue in which to contest their disenrollments, but I guess not. The only real remedy was reinstatement in the tribe which is a political function that can only be exercised by tribal officials as part of their official capacity. I don’t think the disenrolled would have put a price on their tribal identity if they could only sue for money damages.

  2. Robert Xavier Betancourt Junior March 13, 2013 / 10:32 pm

    This action cost the tribe a hundred thousand dollars and they will still fight among themselves stopping the Electric Vehicle infrastructure, the youth house, taking over the unused lake and not setting up a disabled recreation program. Maybe I will go to the inland cherokees and get their tribe started with money from France which you do not want. Better Place & Renault ZE

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