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COBELL v. NORTON

April 28, 2003

ELOUISE PEPION COBELL, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
GALE A. 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

This matter comes before the Court on defendants' motion for partial summary judgment regarding the statute of limitations and laches [1781-1], which was filed on January 31, 2003. Upon consideration of defendants' motion, plaintiffs' opposition thereto, defendants' reply brief, and the applicable law in this case, the Court finds that defendants' motion should be denied.

I. LEGAL ANALYSIS

A. Legal Standard For Summary Judgment

Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides, in relevant part, that summary judgment "shall be entered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." In a separate memorandum and order issued this date, the Court has explained at length the legal standards that govern motions for summary judgment. Accordingly, it will only be necessary to provide a brief explanation of the relevant burdens of proof governing this motion.

Defendants have moved for partial summary judgment that the statute of limitations or the doctrine of laches bars any claims by plaintiffs for an accounting of individual Indian money (IIM) trust balances or transactions prior to October 1, 1984. Because defendants will bear the burden of persuasion on this issue at trial, defendants presently possess the burden of presenting credible evidence that would entitle them to a directed verdict at trial on this issue, if the evidence were not controverted. If defendants fail to provide such evidence, they will not have satisfied their burden of production, and the Court will deny partial summary judgment. However, if defendants do provide such evidence, they will have met their burden of production (although the burden of persuading the finder of fact on a preponderance of the evidence standard remains with defendants). The burden of production would then shift to plaintiffs, who would be required to provide credible evidence demonstrating the existence of a genuine issue for trial. If plaintiffs failed to provide such evidence, they would not have met their burden of production, and the Court could conclude that defendants have prevailed on their burden of persuasion, and enter partial summary judgment on the issues presented in their motion.

B. The Court's November 5, 1998 Memorandum Opinion

The Court has previously addressed defendants' contention that the statute of limitations or, alternatively, the laches doctrine, bars plaintiffs' claims for an accounting of any IIM trust balances prior to October 1, 1984. The Court agreed with the parties that the statute of limitations found in 28 U.S.C. § 2401 governed this case. Subsection (a) of that statute provides, in relevant part, that "every civil action commenced against the United States shall be barred unless the complaint is filed within six years after the right of action first accrues." The Court then rejected plaintiffs' assertion that the tolling language contained in the Department of the Interior and Related Agencies Appropriations Act for fiscal year 1990-91, Pub.L. No. 101-512,*fn1 completely eliminated defendants' right to assert the statute of limitations as a defense, explaining:

Although the Court agrees that the plaintiffs fall under the protections of the tolling statute because their claim is one for "trust mismanagement," these protections do not include the revival of potentially long stale claims. The tolling language clearly stops the clock from commencing to run on the plaintiffs' viable claims as of October 1, 1990. But nothing in this legislative history shows that the "tolling provision" was ever intended to do more than its name suggests. In other words, the provision only tolls a clock that has not commenced running. It cannot revive claims for which the clock stopped running long ago.
Cobell v. Babbitt, 30 F. Supp.2d 24, 43-44 (D.D.C. 1998) (footnotes omitted). After examining both the statutory language and the relevant legislative history, the Court concluded that
if the plaintiffs can be allowed to bring their cause of action for an accounting based on the transactions that occurred before October 1, 1984, they must show that these claims did not accrue prior to this date. Any claims that accrued before October 1, 1984, would have been time barred before the enactment of the tolling provision in the 1990 appropriations act.
Id. at 44.

Although the Court did observe that, at that time, "[t]he parties agree[d] that the plaintiffs' claims accrued when the plaintiffs knew or should have known that they had a valid right of action for trust mismanagement against the government," the Court made no ruling as to that point of law. Id. Instead, the Court declined to make any ruling on the statute of limitations issue because the issue had not been fully briefed and discovery had not yet been completed. The Court explained that defendants were "free to raise their statute of limitations defense at the summary judgment stage, once the parties have completed their discovery of facts that go to the plaintiffs' knowledge and have had the opportunity to adequately brief the issues presented." Id. at 45. In a footnote, the Court mentioned the relevant issues that it planned to address at that time:

Presumably the Court will address issues such as when the plaintiffs' claims accrued, the effect of the statute of limitations on an action for an accounting, the undisputed facts on which the defendants base their argument that the plaintiffs' cause of action for an accounting has accrued, and equitable tolling. Specifically, the Court expects to address the issue of the effect of the trust relationship on the accrual of the plaintiffs' claims under 28 U.S.C. § 2401(a). See Loudner v. United States, 108 F.3d 896, 901 (8th Cir. 1997) (holding that the Indian plaintiffs, as beneficiaries of the trust, were under a lessened duty to discover their claims against the United States as trustee for statute of limitations purposes under 28 U.S.C. § 2401(a) because of the fiduciary relationship (citing Manchester Bank of Pomo Indians, Inc. v. United States, 363 F. Supp. 1238 (N.D.Cal. 1973))).
Id. at 45 n. 26. The Court will now address these issues.

C. Statute of Limitations

Because plaintiffs have alleged claims for relief against the United States, their claims are barred by the statute of limitations if they were not brought within six years after their right of action accrued. The key issue thus becomes whether ...


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