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Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate of Lake Traverse Reservation v. Jewell

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 17, 2015

THE HONORABLE SALLY JEWELL, Secretary of the Interior, et al., Defendants.


Thomas F. Hogan Senior United States District Judge

Pending before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss [ECF No. 19], which seeks dismissal of Plaintiff s Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Because the Court finds that it has jurisdiction over this matter, the Defendants' Motion to Dismiss will be denied.


On April 30, 2013, this lawsuit was filed by four federally-recognized American Indian tribes seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of the Treasury (hereinafter "Defendants") for their alleged breaches of fiduciary duties relating to tribal trust accounts. See Compl. [ECF No. 1]. On November 15, 2013 and November 19, 2013, Plaintiffs amended their Complaint to add additional American Indian tribes, bringing the total number of Plaintiff-tribes to ten. See First Am. Compl. & Second Am. Compl. [ECF Nos. 17 & 20]. On November 22, 2013, Defendants moved to dismiss the Plaintiffs' Complaint based on lack of jurisdiction. Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss [ECF No. 19]. Defendants contend that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction because the government has not waived its sovereign immunity from the Plaintiffs' claims. Id.

The underlying facts related to this case are not unfamiliar to the Court. The federal government has held funds and assets in trust for American Indian tribe beneficiaries for well over a century. Unfortunately, the federal government has failed to discharge its fiduciary duties in its role as trustee for the tribes, and those trust accounts have been mismanaged for almost as long as they have been in existence. See Cobell v. Norton, 240 F.3d 1081, 1086 (D.C. Cir. 2001). Plaintiffs now seek declaratory relief that certain previous attempts to reconcile the trust accounts did not satisfy the government's responsibility to provide a complete and accurate accounting of those accounts. Second Am. Compl. ¶ 62 [ECF No. 20]. Plaintiffs also seek injunctive relief compelling Defendants to perform their duties to provide complete and accurate accountings, preserve any and all documents concerning Plaintiffs' trust accounts, and make their accounts whole. Id. ¶¶ 67-69. Finally, Plaintiffs seek judicial review of the agencies' actions under the Administrative Procedures Act ("APA"). Id. ¶¶ 71-75.

Defendants argue that Plaintiffs' claims are improperly based on the "inherent fiduciary duty" between the federal government and Plaintiff-tribes, and that Plaintiffs have failed to properly identify the statute or regulation on which their claims are based. Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss 13 [ECF No. 19]. Defendants also argue that Plaintiffs have not sufficiently alleged that the "complete and accurate trust accounting" they seek is demanded by law, which means that Plaintiffs have failed to properly invoke the APA's waiver of sovereign immunity. Id. at 14. Defendants further contend that (1) Plaintiffs seek broad structural relief which is not proper under the APA, (2) Plaintiffs' claims are impermissible programmatic challenges, (3) Plaintiffs' claims related to recordkeeping should be dismissed because there is no private right of action, and (4) Plaintiffs' claims for injunctive relief are actually seeking monetary damages which is outside the scope of the waiver of sovereign immunity and not within the Court's jurisdiction. Id. at 16-19, 22-23. Finally, Defendants argue that Plaintiffs' claims are time-barred under the applicable statute of limitations. Id. at 19-21.


"Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. They possess only that power authorized by Constitution and statute." Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994) (internal citations omitted). When the Court's subject-matter jurisdiction is challenged, the party asserting jurisdiction bears the burden of establishing that the court does, in fact, have subject-matter jurisdiction over the dispute. Moms Against Mercury v. FDA, 483 F.3d 824, 828 (D.C. Cir. 2007). Because sovereign immunity "is a jurisdictional issue" it "may be raised in a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss . . . ." Royer v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, 933 F.Supp.2d 170, 180 (D.D.C. 2013). In deciding a motion to dismiss based on lack of jurisdiction, the Court must construe all facts alleged in the complaint as true. Morrow v. United States, 723 F.Supp.2d 71, 76 (D.D.C. 2010).


As a threshold matter, the Court notes that it has jurisdiction in this matter because the prospective relief Plaintiffs seek is a "civil action[ ] arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Because the government has challenged whether it has waived sovereign immunity for Plaintiffs' claims, this does not end the jurisdictional inquiry.

I. Waiver of Sovereign Immunity

Plaintiffs bring their lawsuit against federal officials, so they "must prove a clear waiver of sovereign immunity that covers the substantive claims and remedies that they seek." Cobell v. Babbitt (Cobell V), 91 F.Supp.2d 1, 24 (D.D.C. 1999). Here, the Plaintiffs' claims are properly within the waiver of sovereign immunity found in section 702 of the APA which provides:

An action in a court of the United States seeking relief other than money damages and stating a claim that an agency or an officer or employee thereof acted or failed to act in an official capacity or under color of legal authority shall not be dismissed nor relief therein be denied on the ground that it is against the United States.

5 U.S.C. § 702. There is a "strong presumption" of reviewability of agency decisions under the APA. Bowen v. Mich. Acad. Of Family Physicians, 476 U.S. 667, 670 (1986). While Defendants have argued Plaintiffs' claims for declaratory and injunctive relief are merely claims for monetary damages in disguise (Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss 17 [ECF No. 19]), this argument carries no weight at the motion to dismiss stage because on the face of their Complaint, Plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief, not monetary damages. And, as the Supreme Court has made clear, the Court need only examine the nature of the action that Plaintiffs have brought to determine whether there has been a waiver of sovereign immunity. Bowen v. Massachusetts, 487 U.S. 879, 893-96 (1988) ("Our cases have long recognized the distinction between an action at law for damages . . . and an equitable action for specific relief. . . . The fact that a judicial remedy may require one party to pay money to another is not a sufficient reason to characterize the relief as money damages.") (internal quotation marks and ...

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