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PYRAMID LAKE PAIUTE TRIBE OF INDIANS v. MORTON

June 22, 1973

PYRAMID LAKE PAIUTE TRIBE OF INDIANS, Plaintiff,
v.
Rogers C.B. MORTON, Secretary of the Interior, Defendant


Gesell, District Judge.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: GESELL

Gesell, District Judge.

 Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe of Indians has moved for attorneys' fees and other expenses incurred by its attorneys in connection with this successful litigation against the Secretary of the Interior, D.C., 354 F. Supp. 252. Although the motion is unopposed, three questions are presented to the Court for determination. First, is this an appropriate case for the award of attorneys' fees and special expenses other than normal court costs? Second, does the Court have authority to make the award sought? Third, assuming the first two matters have been determined affirmatively, what sum is reasonable to compensate counsel and reimburse for expenses claimed?

 The record in this case establishes the strongest possible basis under decisions governing the discretion of an equity judge for the award of attorneys' fees and expenses. No purpose will be served by recapitulating the record in this matter which will amply support the following factual determinations.

 (1) The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe of Indians is impoverished. The Reservation is a "depressed area" and the Tribe's legal expenses alone approximate its entire income.

 (2) The Secretary of the Interior was shown to have breached his fiduciary obligation to the Tribe by a course of conduct which continued over a substantial period of time. This was to the severe detriment of the Tribe in a manner that cannot be financially compensated.

 (3) In the course of these proceedings, the Secretary's representatives acted in an obdurate and intransigent manner refusing in good faith to carry out the Court's directives, and as a consequence unnecessarily extended the litigation to the detriment of the Tribe.

 (4) The determinations made in this litigation not only benefited the Tribe but in many very real respects will enhance the public interest. The litigation has given added protection to the environment in and around Pyramid Lake and it has preserved a unique natural resource. In its larger aspects it has caused a significant implementation of national policy toward Indians and encouraged the continued viability of the Lake, thus assisting declared congressional policy.

 Litigation of this character should not be burdened with expense, in order to encourage suits that so clearly enhance the public interest. Wyatt v. Stickney, 844 F. Supp. 387, 409 (M.D. Ala. 1972).

 No review in detail of the decisions is necessary. The following decisions emphasize the single and combined significance of the four factors mentioned as they should govern in the award of attorneys' fees and special expenses. Mills v. Electric Auto-Lite Co., 396 U.S. 375, 90 S. Ct. 616, 24 L. Ed. 2d 593 (1970); Vaughan v. Atkinson, 369 U.S. 527, 82 S. Ct. 997, 8 L. Ed. 2d 88 (1962); Yablonski v. United Mine Workers of America, 151 U.S. App. D.C. 253, 466 F.2d 424 (1972); La Raza Unida v. Volpe, 57 F.R.D. 94 (N.D. Cal. 1972).

 A more difficult question is presented when the Court turns to a consideration of its legal authority to assess attorneys' fees and costs against the Secretary. Section 2412 of Title 28, United States Code, authorizes a judgment for costs, "not including the fees and expenses of attorneys," against an official of the United States acting in his official capacity. The usual rule, codified in § 2412, is that attorneys' fees cannot be awarded against the Government unless a statute so provides. United States v. Worley, 281 U.S. 339, 344, 50 S. Ct. 291, 74 L. Ed. 887 (1930). This provision of the Code must be read, however, in the light of 25 U.S.C. § 175 and 25 U.S.C. § 476. Read together, these two provisions show that Congress intended that the United States Attorney should represent recognized Indian Tribes in all suits at law and in equity and that as an additional safeguard Congress authorized the Tribes to employ legal counsel, "the choice of counsel and fixing of fees to be subject to the approval of the Secretary of the Interior," for the purpose of preventing, among other things, the disposition of tribal assets without the consent of the Tribe.

 The background of section 476 is significant. It was passed as part of the Wheeler-Howard bill, 25 U.S.C. § 461, et seq. A reading of the congressional history indicates that Congress was conscious of the fact that Indian Tribes were confronting a dissipation of their assets or other rights because of various administrative actions and conflicting national policies. Accordingly, Congress sought to place Indians in a position to act on their own initiative in such situations to correct inequities and to facilitate presentation of their grievances to federal and state agencies. While not explicitly stated, certainly an aspect of these congressional determinations was the recognition that the Attorney General was not always able or willing to take up cudgels for the Tribes under section 175. Thus Tribes could retain independent counsel and expect to request the Courts for an award of attorneys' fees under specified circumstances such as the present case.

 The Court has concluded that the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 2412 are not a bar to a claim by the Indian Tribe against the Secretary of the Interior based legitimately on the contention that the Secretary has breached his trust by unlawfully and improperly disposing of tribal assets, and that in effect, the statutes provide in such situations that an award of attorneys' fees and expenses of attorneys may be made. It does not appear to the Court that the Tribe's motion should be denied because its choice of counsel and fees was not approved by the Secretary of the Interior. At no time in this lengthy litigation did the Secretary of the Interior raise any question as to the appropriateness of counsel and no objection has been made to the claim for fees. Whether or not this constitutes a waiver is perhaps beside the point, because, in any event, serious constitutional and policy objections can be raised if the statute is interpreted to require the Secretary of ...


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