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Assiniboine and Sioux Tribe of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation v. Norton

July 23, 2002

ASSINIBOINE AND SIOUX TRIBE OF THE FORT PECK INDIAN RESERVATION, PLAINTIFF,
v.
GALE NORTON, SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR, ET. AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Royce C. Lamberth United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Now before the Court is defendants= Local Civil Rule 40.5(c)(3) Objection to Plaintiff=s Designation of Related Case [6], plaintiff=s response thereto and defendants= reply. Upon consideration of the pleadings, the relevant decisions of prior federal courts, and the Local Civil Rules, the Court DENIES defendants= objection, and finds that the instant case is related to Cobell v. Norton, Civil Action Number 96-1285 (RCL). Therefore, the instant case need not and will not be referred to the Calendar Committee for random reassignment.

Plaintiff has designated its case as related to Cobell, which is pending on the merits before this Court. Local Civil Rule 40.5(a)(3) provides that:

[c]ivil, . . . cases are deemed related when the earliest is still pending on the merits in the District Court and they (i) relate to common property, or (ii) involve common issues of fact, or (iii) grow out of the same event or transaction or (iv) involve the validity or infringement of the same patent.

Defendants assert in their objection that this case does not fall into any of the categories enumerated in Local Civil Rule 40.5(a)(3).

I. Background

The gravamen of the complaint in the instant case is that the trustee-delegate defendants are in breach of their fiduciary responsibilities towards the plaintiff beneficiary. In particular, the plaintiff alleges that the defendants have failed to provide it an accounting of all its funds held in trust by the federal government, as required by the 1994 Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act, Pub. L. No. 103- 412 ("1994 Act"). The 1994 Act codifies certain pre-existing duties that the Secretary of Interior, as a trustee-delegate of the United States, owes both to individual Indian and tribal trust beneficiaries. Congress mandated in the 1994 Act that the Secretary of Interior "account for the daily and annual balance of all funds held in trust by the United States for the benefit of an Indian tribe or an individual Indian which are deposited or invested pursuant to the Act of June 24, 1938 (25 U.S.C. 162a)." 25 U.S.C. ' 4011(a).

Similarly, in Cobell v. Norton, Civ. A. No. 96-1285, the plaintiffs filed suit against the trustee-delegates of the United States and other federal officials "to compel performance of trust obligations." Like the plaintiff tribe in the instant case, the "ultimate goal" of the individual Indian plaintiffs in Cobell is an accounting of their funds held in trust by the United States. Cobell v. Babbitt, 52 F.Supp.2d 11, 19 (D.D.C. 1999). Thus, the individual Indian plaintiffs in Cobell, like the tribal plaintiff in this case, allege that the federal government's trustee-delegates have breached (and continue to be in breach of) their fiduciary duties, which includes the duty to provide an accurate accounting.

II. Analysis

The Court finds that the defendants= objection is without merit because these cases are replete with common issues of fact. While it would be a needless exercise in pedantry to discuss all of the common issues of fact between the instant case and Cobell, the Court will list a few of the more significant ones.

First, the Department of Interior manages the land that it holds in trust in the same manner regardless of whether the beneficiary is an individual Indian or a tribe. As Secretary Norton testified during the recent contempt trial in Cobell:

Basically, the same kinds of, you know, administration of grazing leases on a reservation, the activities are done in parallel whether it is a tribal trust or whether it is an Indian trust. If BIA is handling that grazing lease, then it's essentially done in the same way by the same people whichever type of trust it is.

So we've been looking at the issue both in terms of the IIM accounting and the tribal accounting. It is clear that we have responsibilities as to both and we ought to look at improvement of our system as to both types of accounting. Cobell v. Norton, Contempt II Tr. at 4335. As a result of this practice, there is no question that common issues of fact exist between the instant case and Cobell. The Court will have to determine in the instant case, as it does in Cobell, whether the defendants are administering these leases in accordance with their fiduciary obligations.

Second, some leases cover many tracts of land that are held in trust by the federal government on behalf of both tribal and individual Indian beneficiaries. See, e.g., Cobell v. Norton, Contempt II Tr. at 4457. That is, a single lease may cover property that is held in trust by the United States for the benefit of tribal and individual Indian beneficiaries. As a result of this overlap, there are a multitude of factual issues that are in common in Cobell and the instant case. It would clearly waste judicial resources to have two separate courts make findings of fact regarding the ...


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