Oklahoma SCT Overrules Bittle v. Bahe

Here is the opinion in Sheffer v. Buffalo Run Casino.

From the court’s syllabus:

Charles Sheffer, Jennifer Sheffer, and their minor son, J.S., were injured when their 18-wheeler tractor trailer collided with a rental vehicle leased to William Garris and driven by David Billups, both employees of Carolina Forge Company, L.L.C. Plaintiffs sued Carolina Forge on theories of respondeat superior and negligent entrustment. They also sued the Buffalo Run Casino, the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma, and PTE, Inc. for dram-shop liability. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Carolina Forge, finding as a matter of law Carolina Forge was not liable for its employees’ actions under a theory of respondeat superior and did not negligently entrust the rental vehicle to its employees. The trial court also dismissed, sua sponte, the Buffalo Run Casino, PTE, Inc., and the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma, determining that injunctions issued by the Honorable Lee R. West in the Western District of Oklahoma in Case No. 10-CV-00050-W and Case No. 10-CV-01339-W, prohibited suit for any tort claims against a tribe or a tribal entity. Plaintiffs appealed both orders, and we retained the appeals. In Sheffer v. Carolina Forge Co., 2013 OK 48, 306 P.3d 544, we reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to Carolina Forge and found issues of material fact precluded summary judgment on both the respondeat superior and negligent entrustment claims. In the present case, we find the Peoria Tribe is immune from suit in state court for compact-based tort claims because Oklahoma state courts are not courts of competent jurisdiction as the term is used in the model gaming compact. We also hold that because Congress has not expressly abrogated tribal immunity from private, state court dram-shop claims and because the Peoria Tribe and its entities did not expressly waive their sovereign immunity by applying for and receiving a liquor license from the State of Oklahoma, the tribe is immune from dram-shop liability in state court. The trial court’s dismissal of the Peoria Tribe and its entities is affirmed.


Absentee Shawnee Attempt to Dismiss State Court Bittle v. Bahe Litigation Fails

Here is the district court order in Absentee Shawnee v. Combs (W.D. Okla.) — Absentee Shawnee DCT Order.

The tribe had been the defendant in Bittle v. Bahe, in which the Oklahoma Supreme Court held 7-2 that dram shop actions filed against tribal casino operations are not barred by tribal sovereign immunity. The tribe brought this action in federal court to force the dismissal of the state court action, but failed. Here are the materials:

Combs Motion to Dismiss

Absentee Shawnee Response to Combs

Bittle Motion to Dismiss

Absentee Shawnee Response to Bittle

Cook v. Avi Casino Enters. — Trouble?

The Cook v. Avi Casino Enterprises cert petition has a reasonable chance of being granted. There are a bunch of factors that support the petitioners, and a bunch that don’t.

The case involves dram shop actions against tribal casinos. I’d bet the wide majority of tribal casinos waive sovereign immunity in tribal court for these kinds of actions, but the Cook case and others usually involve a claim brought in state courts, where tribes have not waived their immunity. Interestingly, other than one Oklahoma case, all of the state (and now federal) courts have found that tribal sovereign immunity precludes these actions. Our discussion of the Oklahoma case, and at least three other state cases is here.

So there is a split of authority, but it’s not between federal circuits, which decreases the chance for review somewhat. And there is a Supreme Court case, Rice v. Rehner, a preemption case that held that there is little or no tradition of tribal sovereignty in the context of alchoholic beverage transactions. The petitioners are asking the Court to expand that holding to strike down sovereign immunity in state courts.

On the other hand, the petitioners are asking for a second chance at the pot, likely because they refused to bring a claim in tribal court. In short, these petitioners, who came onto the reservation on their own accord and conducted business with an Indian tribe, want the right to make a state court claim, and want that right to trump the available tribal court venue. Moreover, the Supreme Court might not be terribly interested in another tribal sovereign immunity case, especially since the state court cases are all decided based on state law, interestingly enough. Yes, it’s true, state courts also recognize tribal sovereign immunity.

This is an important question for gaming tribes, many of which have priced and acquired insurance to cover dram shop actions on the basis that these cases would be decided in tribal courts.

Finally, there is a decent argument that the tribal-state gaming compact relationship would be undermined by a decision eliminating or reducing tribal immunity in this context. Increasing the cost for tribes of doing business hurts state revenue sharing. One hopes the states recognize that.

Split in State Court Authority on Whether Casino Dram Shop Actions are Barred by Tribal Sovereign Immunity

As Trent noted, the Oklahoma Supreme Court held 7-2 that dram shop actions filed against tribal casino operations are not barred by tribal sovereign immunity in Bittle v. Bahe. This decision conflicts with decisions of other state courts, including those of Arizona (Filer v. Tohono O’odham Nation), Texas (Holguin v. Ysleta del Sur Pueblo), and Washington (Foxworthy v. Puyallup). And, as we know by reading Rule 10 of the United States Supreme Court rules, the Supreme Court is predisposed toward hearing cases in which there is a split of lower court authority involving an important federal question.

This may be a troubling development, though perhaps not as a result of this case. If the tribe refuses to petition the Supreme Court for certiorari, then this case will be over. Moreover, even if the tribe petitions, the Court might let this one go because of lower court outcome isn’t troublesome to the Court.

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Okla Supreme Ct Holds that 18 USC 1161 Waives Tribal Immunity from Suit

The question is whether Congress abrogated tribal immunity from suits for “dram shop” liability when it enacted 18 USC 1161. Plaintiffs in several states have argued that it did, relying on the statute and the Supreme Court’s opinion in Rice v. Rehner. Until yesterday, no appellate court had agreed with that argument. The appeals courts of Arizona, Texas, and Washington have all found that 1161 does not amount to Congressional abrogation of tribal immunity, and that a tribe does not waive its immunity by getting a state issued liquor license. The plaintiff in the Washington case has petitioned the State Supreme Court for review–that petition is still pending.

I think the argument fails regardless of what the state’s laws say, but what makes this even more disturbing is that Oklahoma’s “dram shop” laws don’t even provide for a 3rd party suit as a method of regulation. In some states the liquor laws specifically provide for 3rd party suits as a means of enforcement, others, including Oklahoma, do not. What the Oklahoma court found was that 1161 abrogated tribal immunity from private tort suits based on a negligence theory simply because a violation of a liquor regulation was alleged.

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