• March 9, 2010

There are eleven federally recognized Indian tribes in Minnesota.  This is not the forum for a comprehensive discussion of the interplay between Tribal Court law vs. Minnesota state law vs. United States law but, suffice it to say, as is evident from two recent decisions, almost every Minnesota civil litigator, at one time or another, will have a case or two that touches on Indian law (if it’s not wholly subsumed by it).

Casinos and related financial or commercial endeavors are often the crossroads where Minnesota civil litigators find themselves working with, around, within, or against these overlapping (or not overlapping) jurisdictions.

In Lower Sioux Indian Community v. Kraus-Anderson Construction, Co., the Lower Sioux tribe had a dispute in connection with alleged construction defects in a hotel construction project, Jackpot Junction Hotel.   The tribe sued it out in tribal court, also filing in Minnesota state court (Renville County), which, the tribe explained, was solely a placeholder filing.  Lower Sioux had no intention of actually litigating the dispute in state court, filing the case to make clear that the case was within applicable statutes of limitation.

So Lower Sioux did not oblige Kraus-Anderson (“K-A”) to answer the state court complaint.  After the case had been dormant for nearly two years, however, K-A, still without having ever answered the complaint, brought third-party complaints against subcontractors who, in turn, brought motions to enjoin the tribal court proceeding, arguing that the tribal court had no jurisdiction over them.  Lower Sioux responded by seeking voluntary dismissal of their state court action.

The district court essentially denied the voluntary dismissal and enjoined the tribal court proceeding.  Last week, the Court of Appeals reversed.  Lower Sioux, the Court held, was not a “necessary party” to the state court proceeding and, accordingly, it could not be compelled to stay in the state court proceeding.  As for whether the tribal court would have jurisdiction over the sub-contractors and other questions, the court held these were decisions for the tribal court to decide (citing to tribal court rules).

In National Labor Relations Board v. Fortune Bay Resort Casino, the issue was whether the NLRB could enforce a subpoena against Fortune Bay, a wholly owned and managed governmental entity of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa Indians.  The tribe, in essence, took the position that it was not subject to the National Labor Relations Act and, therefore, should not be subjected to a subpoena by the NLRB, the agency tasked with enforcing the act.  Indeed, the NLRB initially interpreted the NLRA not to apply to tribal nations.  This changed in later years when tribal businesses were recognized as “significant employers of non-Indians and serious competitors with non-Indian owned businesses.”

In his 24-page opinion, U.S. Judge John Tunheim (D. Minn.) affirmed the Report and Recommendation of U.S. Mag. Judge Jeanne J. Graham, overruling Fortune Bay’s objections to the subpoena and ordering compliance.  Interestingly, we learn at the conclusion of the opinion that the NLRB actually sought to dismiss the enforcement action.  The Court rejected the Board’s attempted voluntary dismissal, noting that the proposed dismissal was without prejudice.  Therefore, the dispute, once engaged, could cost more if dismissed than if resolved and the Court exercised its discretion to rule rather than dismiss.

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