Navajo Nation et al v. Rael et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER by District Judge William P. Johnson DENYING 36 Plaintiffs' MOTION for Reconsideration. (kg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW MEXICO
NAVAJO NATION and CURTIS BITSUI,
No. 1:16-cv-00888 WJ/LF
HONORABLE PEDRO G. RAEL, Judge,
New Mexico Thirteenth Judicial District, and
LEMUEL L. MARTINEZ, District Attorney,
New Mexico Thirteenth Judicial District,
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
DENYING PLAINTIFFS’ MOTION FOR RECONSIDERATION
THIS MATTER comes before the Court upon Plaintiffs Motion for Reconsideration,
filed May 9, 2017 (Doc. 36). Having reviewed the parties’ briefs and applicable law, the Court
finds that Plaintiffs’ motion is not well-taken and, therefore, is denied.
Plaintiffs in this lawsuit were initially the defendants in a New Mexico state court case in
which Curtis Bitsui, a Native American, was alleged to have interfered with certain easements
traversing a tract of land that he owns and which he considered to be Indian country, as defined
under as defined under 18 U.S.C. §1151.
Defendants in this federal case are Lemuel Martinez,
district Attorney for New Mexico’s Thirteenth Judicial District and the Honorable Pedro G. Rael
(“Judge Rael”) who presided over the state court case in the underlying litigation and determined
that the state court had jurisdiction over the matter because the tract of land (“the Allotment”)
was not Indian country.
Plaintiffs filed action in federal court seeking a declaration that the Thirteenth Judicial
District Court of New Mexico has no jurisdiction in the underlying state court case and thus
Defendant Martinez has no authority to take action in that case, or in any other legal action in
state court against Plaintiff Bitsui arising from an Indian allotment. Both parties filed Amended
Motions for Judgments on the Pleadings, which the Court addressed together. The Court denied
Plaintiffs’ motion, and granted Defendants’ motion, finding that Defendants were entitled to
judgment on the pleadings as to Plaintiffs’ entire complaint. However, the Court rejected
Defendants’ argument that the Younger doctrine mandated a stay in this case until the appeal in
the state court case was concluded, finding that the doctrine was not relevant to the
circumstances of this case. Doc. 34 at 18. Instead, the Court found that it was barred from
hearing the matter based on the doctrine of collateral estoppel. Id. at 16 (finding that the
jurisdictional issue of whether the Allotment was on Indian land “is identical to the issue
presented by Plaintiffs in this federal case, and that collateral estoppel bars this Court from
addressing it again”); id. at 18 (“this question has already been answered, and collateral estoppel
bars this Court from answering it again”).
Under F.R.C.P. 60(b)(6), “the court may relieve a party or its legal representative from a
final judgment, order, or proceeding for . . . any other reason that justifies relief.” The Tenth
Circuit held that “[g]rounds warranting a motion to reconsider include (1) an intervening change
in the controlling law, (2) new evidence previously unavailable, and (3) the need to correct clear
error or prevent manifest injustice.” Servants of Paraclete v. Does, 204 F.3d 1005, 1012 (10th
Cir. 2000). “Thus, a motion for reconsideration is appropriate where the court has
misapprehended the facts, a party's position, or the controlling law.” Id.1
Plaintiffs claim that they challenge the Court’s ruling in order to prevent “manifest
injustice,” Doc. 36 at 2, but the Court finds that they offer no reason for the Court to modify its
ruling under any of the above categories.
Application of Collateral Estoppel
Plaintiffs do not contest that the basic elements of collateral estoppel have been met, yet
contend that this case is an exception to the use of the doctrine because it falls in the contexts of
federal pre-emption or sovereign immunity. See Durfee v. Duke, 375 U.S. 106, 111 (1963)
(“Doctrines of federal pre-emption or sovereign immunity may in some contexts be
controlling.”). This argument is a thinly disguised invitation to the Court to rehash the central
question of Plaintiffs’ underlying motion and on which the Court has already ruled, which is
whether this case involves issues of federal pre-emption or sovereign immunity that are relegated
to federal courts to decide.
Plaintiffs claim that the Court cites no precedent for the proposition that a federal court is
estopped from reviewing a state court’s determination of whether a parcel of land alleged to be
an Indian allotment is actually an Indian allotment for purposes of 18 U.S.C. §1151(c). Doc. 36
at 5. Faced with the Court’s plain application of the preclusion doctrine to bar a collateral attack
on the rulings in New Mexico State District Court by State District Judge Rael, Plaintiffs attempt
to create an exception to the “rule of finality of jurisdictional determinations.” Doc. 36 at 2.
Under this rule, a judgment may be attacked in a collateral proceeding in another jurisdiction on
the basis that it was rendered without jurisdiction. See U.S. v. Bigford, 365 F.3d 859, 865 (10th
The Court assumes that Plaintiffs bring this motion under Rule 60(b)(6) because it is filed more than ten days after
the entry of judgment. See U.S. v. Emmons, 107 F.3d 762, 764 (10th Cir.1997).
Cir. 2004) (citing cases); U.S. v. Thompson, 941 F.2d 1074, 1080 (10th Cir.1991) (“Only void
judgments are subject to collateral attack.”). As the Tenth Circuit has held, “[o]f course, a
collateral attack on jurisdictional grounds is precluded in a subsequent proceeding where the
jurisdictional issue was fully and fairly litigated and finally decided in the prior proceeding.”
Bigford, 365 F.3d at 865 (internal quotation marks omitted).
Thus, the Court’s application of
collateral estoppel is supported under this rule.
Plaintiffs nevertheless maintain that the issue in this case is an exception to the rule of
finality of jurisdictional determinations. They contended in their underlying motion, and
continue to argue now, that a decision regarding the nature of the Allotment is a federal matter,
that federal policy mandates that matters arising in Indian Country are fundamentally federal in
nature and that state court jurisdiction is pre-empted. See Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma v.
State of Okl. ex rel. Thompson, 874 F.2d 709, 713 (10th Cir. 1989) (“federal law, federal policy,
and federal authority are paramount in the conduct of Indian affairs in Indian Country”).
Court has already addressed this issue in its decision, and found that Judge Rael’s ruling that the
subject property is not Indian country was not an interpretation of federal jurisdictional statutes,
including 18 U.S.C. §1151 (Doc. 34 at 11-12, 14). The Court also explained why the issue of
whether a particular property is Indian country is one that has been previously and property
decided by the New Mexico state courts. Id. Judge Rael’s inquiry was not a jurisdictional legal
inquiry but rather a fact-bound inquiry that “applie[d]” settled jurisdictional law to the issue at
hand.” Doc. 34 at 13. Thus, the Court was bound to apply collateral estoppel to Judge Rael’s
findings, and Plaintiffs have given the Court no reason to reconsider its previous ruling. See,
e.g., Comanche Indian Tribe of Oklahoma v. Hovis, the Tenth Circuit held that collateral
estoppel barred a tribe from re-litigating a finding that the state court had jurisdiction because the
relevant parties were not residing on tribal land. 53 F.3d 298, 303 (10th Cir. 1995).
Plaintiffs also take issue with the Court’s finding that “the question of whether an
‘offense’ was committed on ‘Indian country’ is not reserved for federal courts.” Doc. 34 at 12.
However, Plaintiffs offer no case law in support of their challenge on this point. Unable to find
any legal support for the proposition that a state court cannot decide whether a piece of land is a
“dependent Indian community” under §1151(b), they attempt to distinguish that specific question
from the question of whether the land is Indian reservation or an allotment. The Court sees no
difference at all between determining whether a piece of land is a “dependent Indian community”
under §1151(b) and whether the Allotment in question is “Indian country” under §1151(b). In
the complaint, Plaintiffs clearly and expressly alleged that the New Mexico state court lacked
jurisdiction because the allotment was Indian country under §1151(b). See Doc. 5 (Am. Compl.)
at ¶¶13, 17 &19; see also Doc. 34 at 5, n.3. Thus, either way Plaintiffs choose to present the
question, the analysis ends up as an inquiry under §1151(b)—which is exactly what was
undertaken by Judge Rael in the prior state court case.
Ironically, one of the cases offered by Plaintiffs runs counter to their position. In Oneida
Indian Nation of NY State v. Oneida County, NY, the United States Supreme Court concluded
that the complaint arose from a federal question in the well-pleaded complaint because “the right
to possession itself is claimed to arise under federal law in the first instance.” 414 U.S. at 676.
However, the Supreme Court in Oneida took pains to distinguish the case at bar, which involved
tribal rights to lands, from cases involving “lands allocated to individual Indians.” Id. (citing
Taylor v. Anderson, 234 U.S. 74 (1914)). In the latter category of cases, a “controversy in
respect of lands has never been regarded as presenting a Federal question merely because one of
the parties to it has derived his title under an act of Congress.” 414 U.S. at 686. The Supreme
Court’s further explanatory comments in Oneida are instructive and relevant for the case before
the Court here:
Once patent issues, the incidents of ownership are, for the most part, matters of local
property law to be vindicated in local courts, and in such situations it is normally insufficient
for “arising under” jurisdiction merely to allege that ownership or possession is claimed
under a United States patent. Oneida, 414 U.S. at 677 (emphasis added). The Supreme Court
compared cases involving land grants obtained by individual Indians through patents—which do
not arise from federal law—from cases involving the larger question of possessory rights to tribal
lands—which do assert a basis for federal question jurisdiction:
In the present case, however, the assertion of a federal controversy does not
rest solely on the claim of a right to possession derived from a federal grant
of title whose scope will be governed by state law. Rather, it rests on the not
insubstantial claim that federal law now protects, and has continuously protected
from the time of the formation of the United States, possessory rights to tribal
lands, wholly apart from the application of state law principles which normally
and separately protect a valid right of possession.
Oneida, 414 U.S. at 677 (emphasis added). The case before the Court here plainly involves the
ownership issue for a piece of land allegedly allocated to an individual Indian, Curtis Bitsui, not
the Navajo Tribe. Thus, according to the case Plaintiffs themselves present in their motion to
reconsider, the question of whether the Allotment in question is Indian country is not a question
exclusively reserved for federal courts.
None of the other cases cited by Plaintiffs offers anything that persuades the Court that its
rulings are legally incorrect, and most of the cases are simply irrelevant to the issues in this case.
For example, Plaintiffs cite to cases holding that the United States was an indispensable party. In
one of them, U.S. v. City of Tacoma, Wash., the Ninth Circuit held that the Washington state
court lacked jurisdiction over a condemnation action for five Indian allotments where the United
States held a valid property interest in the allotments. 332 F.3d 574 (9th Cir. 2003). This case
may be of significant interest where the issue is whether the United States is an indispensable
party but it has no relevance here, where the issue is whether this Court was precluded from
deciding whether Mr. Bitsui’s allotment was located in Indian country. The state court had fully
and fairly litigated the issue, and had jurisdiction to do so.
Deficiencies in Judge Rael’s Findings
Plaintiffs also contend that Judge Rael did not “fully and fairly” decide the issue of
whether the Allotment is Indian country and therefore collateral estoppel cannot be applied.
They take issue with the weight Judge Rael gave (or did not give) to certain testimony or title
reports, which they claim weighed in their favor. Doc. 36 at 5-6. This Court, however, found
that Judge Rael considered the issues raised in Plaintiff Bitsui’s motions to dismiss “in a
measured and detailed opinion . . . .” Doc. 34 at 12. Judge Rael considered documentary
evidence, testimony and several rounds of briefing. This meets the requirements for full and fair
litigation under the collateral estoppel doctrine. Plaintiffs focus on their disagreements with
Judge Rael’s analysis, but as Defendants point out, any challenge to Judge Rael’s ruling is
appropriately brought in the New Mexico Court of Appeals. In fact, the parties are awaiting a
decision from that court.2
In their reply, Plaintiffs attach a copy of Public Service Company of New Mexico v.
Barboan, 857 F.3d 1101, 1113 (10th Cir. 2017) as support for their argument that Judge Rael’s
analysis was faulty and his conclusion was incorrect. Doc. 40-1. Barboan, however, does not
advance Plaintiff’s argument at all because that case addressed the condemnation of land
allotments to Indians and tribes. The case did not examine any particular parcel of land to
The underlying state court case is captioned as State of New Mexico v. Curtis Bitsui, Decision & Order, No:
D1333-CV-2015-00228, filed March 4, 2016. Plaintiff Bitsui filed his Notice of Appeal in the New Mexico Court of
Appeals on December 8, 2016. As of this date, the appeal is still pending.
determine whether an allotment was in fact tribal based on documentary evidence, much less
whether the land was “Indian country” under 18 U.S.C. §1151 and so Barboan does not provide
any guidance for the underlying issue in this case or any reason to second-guess Judge Rael’s
decision. Plaintiff’s offering of the Barboan case is simply another attempt to circumvent this
Court’s application of the collateral estoppel doctrine and obtain a do-over of Judge Rael’s
analysis. Plaintiffs are unhappy with the outcome of this case, but there is a silver lining: if
Judge Rael’s conclusion was wrong, the New Mexico Court of Appeals will afford Plaintiffs the
relief they seek. Additionally, Plaintiffs can file a notice of appeal and seek appellate review of
this Court’s rulings by the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.
In sum, the Court finds that there has been no intervening change in the controlling law;
no evidence presented here that was previously unavailable, and no need to correct clear error or
to prevent manifest injustice.
IT IS ORDERED that Plaintiffs’ motion for reconsideration (Doc. 36) is hereby
DENIED for reasons described in this Memorandum Opinion and Order.
WILLIAM P. JOHNSON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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