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Fort McDermitt Paiute v. Price

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 27, 2018

THOMAS E. PRICE et al., Defendants.



         This case, brought under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (“ISDEAA”), 25 U.S.C. § 5301 et seq., concerns a medical clinic in McDermitt, Nevada, a small hamlet located in a remote area of the state near the Oregon border. See Pl.'s Br. at 7-8.[1] In February 2016, the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe (the “Tribe”) informed the Indian Health Service (“IHS”)-an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”)-that it wished to take over operation of the clinic. AR 58. In March 2016, IHS announced that it intended to close the clinic. Pl.'s Br. at 9; AR 42-47. The Tribe and IHS began negotiating a “self-governance compact and funding agreement” pursuant to Title V of ISDEAA, under which the Tribe would operate the clinic. Pl.'s Br. at 10. The parties were able to reach agreement in some areas, but not all. On October 13, 2016, the Tribe set forth its position on five remaining sticking points in a “final offer” submitted pursuant to 25 U.S.C. § 5387(b). AR 108-15. IHS responded on November 23, 2016, with a letter (the “Declination Letter”) rejecting the Tribe's proposal on all five points. AR 130-41. The parties subsequently resolved three of the five issues through further negotiations. See Pl.'s Br. at 10.

         The parties still disagree whether IHS properly rejected two of the Tribe's proposals under IDSEAA, which sets out limited grounds on which IHS may do so. First, the parties dispute whether IHS's rejection of the Tribe's requested funding level was proper. IHS asserts that it properly rejected the request, because the amount of funds the Tribe proposed exceeded the funding level to which the Tribe was entitled. The Tribe's final offer requested $1, 106, 453 in funding (which consisted of $603, 842 for the clinic and $502, 611 for an emergency medical services program that the Tribe also operates). AR 112-13. IHS claimed in its Declination Letter that the Tribe was entitled to no more than $375, 533. AR 137-38. Second, the parties dispute whether IHS properly rejected the Tribe's proposal to include a provision related to housing for clinic employees in the funding agreement. AR 109, 132-34. The parties have cross-moved for summary judgment on these issues. ECF Nos. 14, 16.

         For the reasons set forth below, the Court will deny both motions without prejudice as they relate to the funding issue, and order further proceedings as set forth below. The Court will, however, enter summary judgment for the Tribe on the employee-housing issue.

         A. Standard of Review

         As an initial matter, the parties disagree over the relevant standard of review. Defendants assert that the Court should review its decision in the Declination Letter under the standard provided by the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”), 5 U.S.C. § 551 et seq. Defs.' Br. at 12. The Tribe disagrees and seeks de novo review. Pl.'s Br. at 10-12. The Court is persuaded by opinions holding that ISDEAA requires de novo review of the government's decision to reject a “final offer” from a tribe. See, e.g., Redding Rancheria v. Hargan, 296 F.Supp.3d 256, 265 (D.D.C. 2017); Manilaq Ass'n v. Burwell, 170 F.Supp.3d 243, 247 (D.D.C. 2016); Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe v. Burwell, 70 F.Supp.3d 534, 541-42 (D.D.C. 2014).

         Therefore, the Court will apply the familiar standard for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. The Court must grant summary judgment “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “Summary judgment is appropriately granted when, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movants and drawing all reasonable inferences accordingly, no reasonable jury could reach a verdict in their favor.” Lopez v. Council on Am.-Islamic Relations Action Network, Inc., 826 F.3d 492, 496 (D.C. Cir. 2016).

         B. Recurring Funding Amount

         The more significant of the two remaining disputed issues concerns whether the Tribe's final offer proposed recurring funding that exceeded the level to which the Tribe was entitled from IHS's “Hospitals & Clinics” budget line. Pl.'s Br. at 13; Defs.' Br. at 12-13. Both parties agree that the statute permits IHS to reject the Tribe's offer to the extent the funding requested exceeds the amount that Defendant Price, as the head of HHS, “would have otherwise provided for the operation of the programs or portions thereof.” 25 U.S.C. § 5325(a)(1); see Id. § 5385(g) (incorporating this standard from Title I of ISDEAA into Title V); Pl.'s Br. at 12; Defs.' Br. at 3-4. The instant record, however, does not provide clarity about what this amount is.

         The problem lies in the fact that the parties have presented the Court with nothing more than a bare “administrative record” with no supporting testimony. The record consists largely of correspondence between the Tribe and IHS, along with financial spreadsheets and similar documents. See AR. It is notably devoid of affidavits or testimony that explain what the numbers in these documents mean.[2] These documents, and the numbers in them, lend themselves to different interpretations. As the Tribe's counsel aptly noted at oral argument, there are “a lot of numbers in this record, ” and the Tribe itself found the financial information proffered by IHS “confusing” during the administrative process. Oral Arg. Tr. at 41:6-12.

         One could reasonably interpret this record to create genuine issues of material fact about the funding amounts in dispute. To take a particular example: at oral argument, both parties discussed a table attached as Exhibit 5 to the Tribe's October 2016 final offer letter. AR 125. The table contains budget information for the 2016 fiscal year. See Id. The “Hospitals & Clinics” line shows “expenditures” of $603, 842, but a “budgeted allowance” of only $181, 778, resulting in a negative “balance” of $422, 064. It is unclear which number may have represented the amount that HHS intended to spend on the clinic in 2016. The Tribe asserts that the “expenditures” amount of $603, 842 is what HHS would have spent. Oral Arg. Tr. at 39:14-40:12. Defendants argue, however, that HHS would not have spent more than it had budgeted (or at least, not from the “Hospitals & Clinics” budget line at issue). Id. at 63:10-22, 65:14-18. The Court has no affidavits or other testimony to back up either party's assertion about what this document means.

         Nor is it clear how these numbers line up with the legal issues that the parties have identified. These issues include whether IHS properly declined to award the Tribe amounts it had identified as the “tribal share” of the Winnemucca Indian Colony (which has members in the same general area), as well as whether IHS properly refused to provide the Tribe with certain clinic funding derived from “third-party reimbursements.” See Pl.'s Reply at 6-18; Defs.' Reply at 5-11. It is unclear how to associate these issues with the figures set forth in particular documents in the record, or even how they contribute to the overall amount in dispute.

         To be sure, at oral argument, both parties represented that there is no genuine issue of fact regarding the dollar amounts at issue, only issues of law like the ones just described. See Oral Arg. Tr. at 5:9-21, 57:21-58:10. Nonetheless, the Court needs to know the dollars-and-cents impact of each such issue. The statute is clear that IHS may reject a tribe's final offer “in part.” 25 U.S.C. § 5387(b). It further specifies that IHS may reject “one or more . . . funding levels in such offer.” Id. § 5387(c)(1) (emphasis added). That is, IHS can object to different aspects of the Tribe's proposed funding level (as it has here), and those objections may not rise and fall together. As a result, it is conceivable that the Court could uphold one of IHS's grounds for rejecting the Tribe's proposed funding level, but not another. In that event, the Court would need to know how to calculate the dollar impact associated with each issue so that it could fashion appropriate relief. Even more fundamentally, the Court needs to know that each issue it is deciding actually has a potential dollar impact, lest the Court provide an advisory opinion on legal issues with no practical consequence.

         The parties suggest that they may be able to clarify the record by stipulating to facts that show the applicable funding amount associated with each legal issue in dispute. See Oral Arg. Tr. at 60:4-13, 61:10-17. The Court believes that this is a helpful suggestion. However, the Court cautions the parties that, if they submit a stipulation, it will conclusively establish all facts it contains for the rest of this litigation. See Christian Legal Soc'y Chapter of Univ. of Cal., Hastings Coll. of Law v. Martinez, 561 U.S. 661, 677 (2010). If the parties do not wish this result, they may instead file a statement of undisputed material facts pursuant to Local Civil Rule 7(h). In that event, the statement of facts must include “references to the parts of the record relied on to support the statement.” LCvR 7(h)(1). And because many of the financial ...

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