Native American Law

  • We successfully represented the Cayuga Nation Council in the US District Court for the District of Columbia.  The Court upheld decisions by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Department of the Interior recognizing the Nation’s resolution of its long-running leadership dispute.  After the Nation’s leadership dispute had festered for more than a decade, the Cayuga people in 2016 undertook a traditional “statement of support” in which an overwhelming majority of eligible Cayuga citizens identified the Cayuga Nation Council as the Nation’s lawful governing body under Nation law.  Thereafter, the BIA recognized the results of the process, and the Assistant Secretary–Indian Affairs affirmed that decision.  But the faction rejected by the Cayuga people, known as the Jacobs Group, challenged those decisions in federal court, alleging that the Department acted arbitrarily and capriciously in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act and the Due Process Clause of the 5th Amendment.  The district court, however, rejected those arguments.  First, it denied the Jacobs Group’s application for a preliminary injunction, explaining that the Jacobs Group “disagree[d]” with the Department’s decisions, but “that disagreement is not a sufficient basis for this Court to overturn an agency decision under the APA.”  Then, on the merits, the district court granted the motions for summary judgment filed by the Council and the federal government—definitively upholding the Department’s decisions.
  • We successfully represented the Cayuga Nation in a long-running property tax dispute with Seneca County in the US District Court for the Western District of New York.  The Nation filed suit in 2011 to prevent Seneca County from foreclosing on Nation-owned properties based on the alleged nonpayment of property taxes—taxes whose legality the Nation disputes.  In 2014, the Second Circuit upheld a preliminary injunction against the foreclosures, finding that the Nation’s sovereign immunity prohibited the foreclosures. Recently, the district court granted summary judgment to the Nation and entered a permanent injunction.  The County had argued that an intervening Supreme Court decision, in Upper Skagit Indian Tribe v. Lundgren, allowed its foreclosures to proceed based on an exception from sovereign immunity for claims based on “immovable property.”  The district court, however, rejected that argument, adhered to the Second Circuit’s precedent and awarded the Nation a permanent injunction.
  • On behalf of the Cayuga Nation Council, we won an appeal in New York’s Appellate Division in a suit seeking to reclaim Nation properties from a group who forcibly seized those properties in 2014, claiming to be the Nation’s lawful leaders.  The Cayuga people had definitively rejected those claims in 2016, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of the Interior then recognized our clients, the Cayuga Nation Council, as the Nation’s lawful governing body.  But nonetheless, those who had seized the Nation’s properties claimed that New York courts lacked jurisdiction to eject them, arguing that doing so would require the courts to impermissibly resolve internal disputes about tribal law or governance.  The trial court, however, rejected these arguments and granted the Nation Council a preliminary injunction.  And on appeal, the Fourth Department affirmed in a 3-2 decision, holding that it must “accord due deference to the [Bureau of Indian Affair]’s conclusion that the Nation … has resolved the dispute in favor of [the Cayuga Nation Council].” 
  • We successfully represented the Tulalip Tribes of Washington in opposing a petition for a writ of certiorari.  The suit was brought by non-Indians who own property on the Tulalip Reservation and sought relief that would preclude tribal regulation.  The Ninth Circuit held that the Tribe was immune from suit.  The plaintiffs petitioned for US Supreme Court review, but on June 10, 2019 the petition was denied.
  • On behalf of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and the Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA), we filed an amicus brief in the US District Court for the District of Columbia in the legal challenge to the Trump Administration’s attempt to diminish the Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah.  Although the brief was ultimately not accepted, it provided a national perspective on the importance of Bears Ears and the perils of the Administration’s unprecedented move.  It identified specific landmarks, structures, and objects of cultural, historic and religious importance to tribal nations not otherwise represented in the case, including many Pueblos of New Mexico.  It also explained that all of the identified sites and artifacts—many of which are considered sacred—face significant risk of being forever damaged, lost, or destroyed if the Administration’s action is allowed to stand.  The brief emphasized the unique role tribal nations played in creating the Bears Ears National Monument, informing the court that Bears Ears is the first national monument protected at the request of Tribes, as well as the first to be collectively managed by representatives from multiple tribes.
  • We represented the Keepseagle v. Vilsack nationwide class of Indian ranchers and farmers who successfully sued the US Department of Agriculture for racial discrimination in providing and servicing farm loans, and who settled in 2010 for $760 million.  The settlement was upheld by the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.
  • In Cayuga Nation v. Tanner, the Village of Union Springs threatened to shut down the Nation’s gaming facility, so the Nation sought injunctive relief in the Northern District of New York.  The district court granted a TRO in the Nation’s favor, which was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds.  We obtained a reversal in the Second Circuit.
  • We secured a major victory for the Cayuga Nation before the New York Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court.  The ruling was the culmination of litigation initiated for the Cayuga Nation in late 2008.  The win had broad ramifications for Indian nations throughout the State of New York.  By allowing the Nation to resume cigarette sales, it returned a key revenue stream, which provides social and other governmental services to its members.
  • Despite the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, holding that re-acquired non-trust reservation land was subject to local property taxes, the Cayuga Nation declined to pay such taxes, so the county filed an action to foreclose on the property.  We asserted that, despite being subject to tax, the Nation was immune from a foreclosure action under the doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity, and the Second Circuit agreed.
  • In 2016, in another matter related to the doctrine of sovereign immunity, we sued to enjoin local interference with our gaming facility.  The village contended that, because of a tribal leadership dispute, we could not establish a right to sue.  The Second Circuit held that federal courts could not address the leadership dispute (under principles akin to immunity), but we still had standing to sue.