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Cavazos v. Zinke

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 7, 2019

JULIA CAVAZOS, et al., Plaintiffs
v.
RYAN ZINKE, et al., Defendants

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          COLLEEN KOLLAR-KOTELLY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiffs allege that they are Native Americans who have been illegally stripped of their tribal membership by their Tribe, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan, in violation of the Judgment Funds Act (“JFA”). Compl., ECF No. 1, ¶¶ 1-3. Plaintiffs petitioned Defendants to enforce the JFA and to reestablish their tribal membership. Id. at ¶ 6. After Defendants failed to adequately respond, Plaintiffs brought this action to compel Defendants to respond to Plaintiffs' petition and to enforce the requirements of the JFA. Defendants have moved for dismissal of Plaintiffs' Complaint, arguing that Plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies.

         Upon consideration of the pleadings, [1] the relevant legal authorities, and the record as a whole, the Court GRANTS Defendants' motion. The Court concludes that Plaintiffs' Complaint fails to state a claim because, absent the completion of the administrative appeal process, Defendants' inaction does not constitute a final agency action subject to judicial review under the Administrative Procedures Act (“APA”). 5 U.S.C. § 704 (requiring “final agency action” prior to judicial review).

         I. BACKGROUND

         For the purposes of the motion before the Court, the Court accepts as true the well-pleaded allegations in Plaintiffs' Complaint. The Court does “not accept as true, however, the [P]laintiffs['] legal conclusions or inferences that are unsupported by the facts alleged.” Ralls Corp. v. Comm. on Foreign Inv. in U.S., 758 F.3d 296, 315 (D.C. Cir. 2014).

         Plaintiffs allege that they were unlawfully disenrolled from membership in the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan (“the Tribe”) in violation of the JFA. Compl., ECF No. 1, ¶ 60. The JFA was passed by Congress in 1986. Id. at ¶ 39. As is relevant here, the Act required the Tribe to eliminate reservation residency requirements for membership and to open enrollment for an eighteen-month period to allow a certain segment of Native Americans to become official members of the Tribe. Id. at ¶ 40. Plaintiffs are among those who properly applied for, and received membership in, the Tribe during the JFA's open enrollment period. Id. at ¶ 47. But, beginning in 2011 and culminating in 2015, Plaintiffs contend that the Tribe's leadership initiated a series of proceedings disenrolling those individuals whose tribal membership had been mandated by the JFA. Id. at ¶ 58.

         Under the JFA, the Secretary of the Interior is tasked with enforcing the requirements of the JFA when tribal leadership fails to perform in accordance with the Act. Id. at ¶ 71 (citing Pub. L. No. 99-346, 100 Stat 674 § 5(b)(2) (1986)). In 2015, Plaintiffs allege that their counsel contacted Bureau of Indian Affairs (“BIA”) officials and urged them to enforce the JFA and to compel the Tribe to cease its disenrollment proceedings. Id. at ¶ 61. Plaintiffs contend that the BIA did not take action in response to their request. Id. at ¶ 62. To force a response, in 2016, Plaintiffs claim that they filed a formal petition with the Department of the Interior (“DOI”) asking agency officials, including those at the BIA, to enforce the JFA and to compel the Tribe to cease its unlawful disenrollment proceedings. Id. at ¶ 63. Following their formal petition, Plaintiffs allege that they have repeatedly communicated with DOI officials, including Defendants, in an effort to force a response to their petition. Id. at ¶ 64. Despite these efforts, Plaintiffs contend that Defendants have taken no action on their petition. Id. Plaintiffs claim that Defendants' failure to enforce the JFA and to compel the Tribe to reenroll Plaintiffs has caused Plaintiffs stigmatic injuries by denying them their Tribal identity as well as financial injuries by denying them Tribal resources. Id. at ¶ 65.

         In response to Defendants' alleged inaction, Plaintiffs now bring this case under the APA to compel Defendants to respond to Plaintiffs' petition and to enforce the JFA. In response, Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint, arguing that judicial review is not appropriate under the APA as Defendants never reached a final agency action because Plaintiffs failed to exhaust the administrative appeal process.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Plaintiffs' cause of action arises under Section 702 of the APA which allows individuals who have been harmed by an agency action to challenge that agency action in court. 5 U.S.C. § 702. However, in order to challenge an agency action under the APA, that agency action must be a “final agency action.” Id. at § 704. Defendants contend that Plaintiffs do not have a “final agency action” to challenge and ask this Court to dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint.

         Defendants ask this Court to dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) based on Plaintiffs' failure to administratively exhaust their claim. Under Rule 12(b)(1), a Court must dismiss a plaintiff's complaint if the court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction. Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 12(b)(1). And, under Rule 12(b)(6), a Court must dismiss a plaintiff's complaint if the plaintiff fails “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Id. at 12(b)(6). For the reasons given below, the Court concludes that Defendants' motion to dismiss for exhaustion is properly treated as a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6).

         Defendants' motion is best dealt with under Rule 12(b)(6) because the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (“D.C. Circuit”) has clarified that “the APA's final agency action requirement is not jurisdictional.” Trudeau v. Fed. Trade Comm'n, 456 F.3d 178, 184 (D.C. Cir. 2006); see also M2Z Networks, Inc. v. Fed. Commc'n Comm'n, 558 F.3d 554, 558 (D.C. Cir. 2009) (“The Administrative Procedure Act (APA) does not pose a barrier to jurisdiction because judicial exhaustion requirements under the APA are prudential only.”). Because the APA's requirement of a final agency action is not jurisdictional, even if Plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies, this Court would still have subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' claim. Accordingly, Rule 12(b)(1) is inapplicable, and the Court will evaluate Defendants' motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6).

         Rule 12(b)(6) provides that a party may challenge the sufficiency of a complaint on the grounds it “fail[s] to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 12(b)(6). When evaluating a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the district court must accept as true the well-pleaded factual allegations contained in the complaint. Atherton v. D.C. Off. of Mayor, 567 F.3d 672, 681 (D.C. Cir. 2009), cert. denied, 559 U.S. 1039 (2010). “[A] complaint [does not] suffice if it tenders ‘naked assertion[s]' devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 557 (2007)). Rather, a complaint must contain sufficient factual allegations that, if accepted as true, “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570.

         Failure to exhaust administrative remedies is an affirmative defense which the defendant bears the burden of pleading and proving. See Mondy v. Sec'y of the Army, 845 F.2d 1051, 1058 n.3 (D.C. Cir. 1988) (MacKinnon, J., concurring); see also Bowden v. United States, 106 F.3d 433, 437 (D.C. Cir. 1997) (“Because untimely exhaustion of administrative remedies is an affirmative defense, the defendant bears the burden of pleading and proving it.”). If the defendant meets that burden, the plaintiff bears the burden of pleading and proving the equitable avoidance of that affirmative defense. See Bowden, 106 F.3d at 437.

         III. EXHAUSTION OF PLAINTIFFS' ...


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