Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Cobell v. Norton

July 12, 2005


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


The plaintiffs' Motion [2746] to Require Defendants to Give their Beneficiaries Notice of their Continuing Inability or Refusal to Discharge their Fiduciary Duties presents one of the few questions in this case that remain unaddressed-whether the Court should order the distribution of a notice containing information about this litigation to the entire 500,000-member plaintiff class. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(d), the extensive factual record, and the prior law of the case govern the answer. After considering the plaintiffs' motion, Interior's memorandum in opposition, the plaintiffs' reply brief, the applicable law, and the entire record herein, the Court concludes that the plaintiffs' motion will be granted.


At times, it seems that the parties, particularly Interior, lose sight of what this case is really about. The case is nearly a decade old, the docket sheet contains over 3000 entries, and the issues are such that the parties are engaged in perpetual, heated litigation on several fronts simultaneously. But when one strips away the convoluted statutes, the technical legal complexities, the elaborate collateral proceedings, and the layers upon layers of interrelated orders and opinions from this Court and the Court of Appeals, what remains is the raw, shocking, humiliating truth at the bottom: After all these years, our government still treats Native American Indians as if they were somehow less than deserving of the respect that should be afforded to everyone in a society where all people are supposed to be equal.

For those harboring hope that the stories of murder, dispossession, forced marches, assimilationist policy programs, and other incidents of cultural genocide against the Indians are merely the echoes of a horrible, bigoted government-past that has been sanitized by the good deeds of more recent history, this case serves as an appalling reminder of the evils that result when large numbers of the politically powerless are placed at the mercy of institutions engendered and controlled by a politically powerful few. It reminds us that even today our great democratic enterprise remains unfinished. And it reminds us, finally, that the terrible power of government, and the frailty of the restraints on the exercise of that power, are never fully revealed until government turns against the people.

The Indians who brought this case are beneficiaries of a land trust created and maintained by the government. The Departments of the Interior and Treasury, as the government's Trustee-Delegates, were entrusted more than a century ago with both stewardship of the lands placed in trust and management and distribution of the revenue generated from those lands for the benefit of the Indians. Of course, it is unlikely that those who concocted the idea of this trust had the Indians' best interests at heart-after all, the original General Allotment Act that created the trust was passed in 1887, at a time when the government was engaged in an "effort to eradicate Indian culture" that was fueled, in part, "by a greed for the land holdings of the tribes[.]" Cobell v. Babbitt ("Cobell V"), 91 F. Supp. 2d 1, 7--8 (D.D.C. 1999). But regardless of the motivations of the originators of the trust, one would expect, or at least hope, that the modern Interior department and its modern administrators would manage it in a way that reflects our modern understandings of how the government should treat people. Alas, our "modern" Interior department has time and again demonstrated that it is a dinosaur-the morally and culturally oblivious hand-me-down of a disgracefully racist and imperialist government that should have been buried a century ago, the last pathetic outpost of the indifference and anglocentrism we thought we had left behind.

The present motion asks the Court to revisit what has become one in a list of lamentable circumstances revealed by this litigation: Despite Interior's near wholesale abdication of its trust duties, the vast majority of the Indian beneficiaries remain unaware that anything is out of order. Interior distributes various kinds of information to Indian beneficiaries, and the beneficiaries, uninformed of the wretched state of things at Interior, make decisions that affect their trust assets on the basis of that information. The plaintiffs now ask the Court to consider the possibility that Interior's ghastly past performance calls into question the reliability of any information it distributes to the Indians. If Interior cannot truthfully guarantee that it is providing the beneficiaries with accurate information on which to base decisions that materially affect their interests in the trust, then the beneficiaries deserve, at the very least, a warning to that effect. Any ordinary, reasonable trustee under similar circumstances would have given each and every beneficiary such a warning years ago. Unhappily, Interior is no ordinary trustee.

A. Factual History

Interior's management of the Indian trust has been a nightmare from the beginning. A 1992 congressional report noted:

Scores of reports over the years by the Interior Department's inspector general, the U.S. General Accounting Office, the Office of Management and Budget, and others have documented significant, habitual problems in the [Bureau of Indian Affairs's] ability to fully and accurately account for trust fund moneys, to properly discharge its fiduciary responsibilities, and to prudently manage the trust funds.

Misplaced Trust

The Bureau of Indian Affairs' Mismanagement of the Indian Trust Fund, H.R. No. 102-449 (1992). Despite this show of concern, the record in this case establishes that Congress's efforts to address the problem have failed. Not surprisingly, Interior's internal efforts to reform trust management, lately undertaken at this Court's direction, have also universally crashed and burned. What remains is the same situation that obtained at the outset of this case: Interior's unremitting neglect and mismanagement of the Indian trust has left it in such a shambles that recovery may prove impossible.

The ignominious record speaks for itself. Interior "does not know the precise number of [Individual Indian Money trust ("IIM")] accounts that it is to administer and protect." Cobell v. Norton ("Cobell VI"), 240 F.3d 1081, 1089 (D.C. Cir. 2001). Interior "does not know the proper balances for each IIM account, nor does Interior have sufficient records to determine the value of IIM accounts." Cobell VI, 240 F.3d at 1089. This Court has noted that "the United States freely gives out 'balances' to plaintiffs, [but] it admits that currently these balances cannot be supported by adequate transactional documentation." Cobell V, 91 F. Supp. 2d at 10. And, "[c]urrent account reconciliation procedures are insufficient to ensure that existing account records, reported account balances, or payments to IIM beneficiaries are accurate." Cobell VI, 240 F.3d at 1089. One result is that Interior issues payments to Indian beneficiaries "in erroneous amounts-from unreconciled accounts-some of which are known to have incorrect balances." Cobell V, 91 F. Supp. 2d at 6. Interior cannot even determine which IIM account holders are members of the plaintiff class. See Mem. & Order [2587], May 28, 2004, at 2--3. Thus, every communication Interior issues to IIM account holders is likely to end up in the hands of at least some class members.

The Court has concluded that the 1994 Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act "requires [Interior] to retrieve and retain all information concerning the IIM trust that is necessary to render an accurate accounting of all money in the IIM trust." Cobell V, 91 F. Supp. 2d at 58. While the Court has consistently emphasized Interior's duty to preserve trust records against loss, damage, and destruction, it has become clear that Interior's complete and continuing default in this obligation remains a primary cause of its inability to properly administer the IIM trust. On February 22, 1999, the Court found that unchecked rodent infestations were damaging trust documents at storage facilities in Nebraska and New Mexico; and that trust documents and microfiche held by the Department of the Treasury had been recently destroyed. See Cobell v. Babbitt, 37 F. Supp. 2d 6, 15, 22 n.8, 28 (D.D.C. 1999). These findings-and the realization that former Secretaries of the Interior and Treasury, along with an Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs, had mislead the Court with respect thereto-prompted the Court to cite those individuals for civil contempt. Cobell, 37 F. Supp. 2d at 39--40. As an additional response, the Court appointed a Special Master who was charged with, among other things, ensuring that trust records were properly safeguarded during the pendency of this case. See Order [213], Feb. 22, 1999. While the Special Master's efforts were informative, they proved to be an insufficient motivation for Interior to reform its records-management practices Examples abound. The Special Master informed the Court that numerous Interior offices lacked the basic facilities and procedures to ensure the safety of trust documents retained in paper form. See, e.g., Report of the Special Master Regarding Site Visits to Area and Agency Offices (Apr. 25, 1999); Report of the Special Master Regarding Site Visits to Area and Agency Offices (Oct. 29, 1999). He discovered trust records stored in puddles of water, near bags of fertilizer, and alongside containers of combustible fuels, tires, and debris of various kinds. See Third Report of the Special Master Regarding Site Visits to Area and Agency Offices (Nov. 12, 1999). He found remnants of trust documents that had been shredded. See Site Visit Report of the Special Master to the Office of Information Resources Management (Mar. 12, 2001). He reported that Interior's Office of the Special Trustee/Office of Trust Records, which is most directly responsible for ensuring the preservation of trust documents, had no effective trust records training program. See Second Investigative Report of the Special Master Regarding the Office of Trust Records (Apr. 11, 2002). The Special Master also alerted the Court that Interior had decided to relocate 32,000 boxes of active trust documents to the Lee's Summit Federal Records Center "without regard to the consequences" and with "utter indifference to the safety of these records or to the ability of IIM beneficiaries to have meaningful access to vital information[.]" See Emergency Report of the Special Master Regarding Defendants' Proposed Relocation of Records to the Lee's Summit Federal Records Center (Apr. 17, 2002), at 22--23.

Interior's management of electronic trust records has proven even more abysmal, if that is possible. See, e.g., Report and Recommendation of the Special Master Regarding the Security of Trust Data at the Department of the Interior (Dec. 4, 2001) (describing a department-wide lack of electronic data security). The Court has disconnected various bureaus and offices within Interior from the Internet on more than one occasion on the basis of evidence that security for electronic trust data was inadequate. See Temporary Restraining Order [1036], issued Dec. 5, 2001, at 2; Cobell v. Norton, 274 F. Supp. 2d 111, 135 (D.D.C. 2003); Cobell v. Norton, 310 F. Supp. 2d 98, 99--100 (D.D.C. 2004). In fact, the Court is currently conducting a lengthy evidentiary hearing on this very issue, which has been revived by the plaintiffs' newest allegations that electronically-stored Indian trust data is at risk of corruption.

The problems that result from Interior's inability to maintain complete and accurate records of the IIM trust are compounded and made more intractable by the penchant of Interior's employees, officials, and litigation counsel to be less than forthcoming with the Court. Aside from the 1999 contempt citations mentioned above, the Court also held Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton and former Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb in civil contempt for, among other things, misleading the Court about the status of Interior's trust reform efforts and computer security. See Cobell v. Norton, 226 F. Supp. 2d 1, 29--46, 88--130 (D.D.C. 2002).*fn1

In December 2002, the Court referred a number of Interior's litigation counsel from the Department of Justice to the Court's Committee on Grievances after reviewing evidence indicating that they had participated in Interior's efforts to communicate with plaintiff-class members without authorization from plaintiffs' counsel in violation of D.C. Rule of Professional Conduct 4.2(a).*fn2 See Cobell v. Norton, 212 F.R.D. 14, 23--24 (D.D.C. 2002). Though the Committee on Grievances determined that no further action was warranted, it is nevertheless telling that evidence supporting such a disciplinary referral was produced at all.

Add vindictiveness to dishonesty and managerial ineptitude. Interior has demonstrated a tendency to retaliate against both the Indian beneficiaries and its own employees when it feels slighted. On May 21, 1999, the Court entered an Order providing that:

The Department of the Interior, together with all of its supervisory officials, are hereby enjoined from taking any retaliatory action, or making any threats of such action, for providing testimony or information in this action, against (1) any person who has identified as a potential witness in this case ..., (2) any person who is called upon through legal process ... to give testimony or provide other information in this litigation, or (3) any person individually identified by Plaintiffs, in writing, to Defendants as a potential witness in this action.

Order [277], May 21, 1999. On March 7, 2000, the plaintiffs submitted to the Court affidavits from Mona Infield, a Bureau of Indian Affairs employee, in support of their motion for a temporary restraining order to preserve trust records that appeared to be in imminent danger of destruction. The Court granted the plaintiffs' motion, see Order [451], Mar. 7, 2000, and it subsequently came to the Court's attention, after an investigation by the Special Master, that Interior had taken severe adverse employment actions against Ms. Infield after her affidavits were made public. See Recommendation and Report of the Special Master Concerning Plaintiffs' Motion for Order to Show Cause [670], Feb. 21, 2001, at 16 (concluding that "sufficient evidence [did exist] to support a finding of probable cause that the actions complained of by Infield were retaliatory and initiated in violation of the Court's [May 21, 1999] Order"); Mem & Order [1218], Mar. 29, 2002 (accepting the Special Master's findings).

The Court ordered Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb to show cause why they should not be held in contempt for violating the Court's anti-retaliation order, see Mem. & Order [1480], Sept. 17, 2002, and the matter was later settled to the Court's satisfaction. See Stip. of Dismissal With Prejudice & Consent Order [1788], Feb. 6, 2003 (vacating Sept. 17, 2002 show cause order on stipulation of settlement by parties).*fn3 In the course of resolving the Infield matter, the Court cautioned Interior to "consider the prospect of future contempt proceedings before engaging in" further retaliatory behavior. Mem. & Order [1480], Mar. 29, 2002, at 5. It is illustrative enough of the depths to which Interior has sunk that the Court found it necessary to issue a general anti-retaliation order in the first place; but Interior's subsequent willful retaliation against its own employee in the face of such an order betrays a truly Machiavellian guile.

As if the Infield business was not enough, Interior's wrath was turned on the Indian beneficiaries themselves in the wake of the Court's September 29, 2004 order restricting communications between Interior and class members concerning sales of Indian trust land (the "land-sales order"). See Cobell v. Norton, 225 F.R.D. 41, 53--54 (D.D.C. 2004) (explaining the basis for the land-sales order); Order [2708], Sept. 29, 2004 (specifying restrictions on land-sale-related communications). Evidence collected by the plaintiffs demonstrated that "[d]uring the period between October 1, 2004 and October 8, 2004, a number of individual Indian trust beneficiaries were denied either their trust checks or information regarding their trust checks by BIA employees who cited this Court's [land-sales] Order as justification." Cobell v. Norton, 335 F. Supp. 2d 531, 542 (D.D.C. 2005). Of course, the Court had previously made clear at a hearing held on October 1, 2004, that the land-sales order had no effect whatsoever on Interior's ability to distribute trust checks. See Cobell, 335 F. Supp. 2d at 533--34 (quoting Tr. (Stat Conf., Oct. 1, 2004): "to stop [trust checks] and [say] that it's because of [the land-sales] order is a flat-out lie.").

Apparently, Interior's withholding of trust checks or information about trust checks from the Indians was one outward manifestation of a period of Byzantine maneuvering within the department in an attempt to either evade or, failing that, mischaracterize and vilify this Court and the land-sales order. See Cobell v. Norton, 224 F.R.D. 266, 269--71 (D.D.C. 2004) (discussing these activities in detail). As the Court explained, the evidence strongly supports the inference that:

Either (1) the Secretary [of the Interior] was grossly negligent when she failed to add a proscription against the withholding of trust checks to the set of instructions distributed by Interior to the BIA on October 4, 2004, when the risk that checks would be withheld in the absence of such a proscription was reasonably foreseeable; or (2) the Secretary intentionally omitted a proscription against the withholding of trust checks from the October 4 instructions despite her knowledge that checks would likely be withheld in the absence of such a proscription.

Cobell, 335 F. Supp. 2d at 542. In light of the record in this case, the Court found it more likely that the Secretary's actions constituted willful misconduct, and invited the Secretary to give testimony to the contrary if the Court's conclusion was in error. ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.