Alabama-Quassarte Tribal Town v. United States of America et al
ORDER by Judge Ronald A. White DENYING 202 Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment AND GRANTING 212 Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. (tls, Deputy Clerk)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
EASTERN DISTRICT OF OKLAHOMA
ALABAMA-QUASSARTE TRIBAL TOWN,
Case No. CIV-06-558-RAW
(1) UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
(2) SALLY JEWELL, Secretary of the United
States Department of the Interior,
(3) KEVIN K. WASHBURN, Associate
Deputy of the Department of the Interior, and
(4) JACK LEW, Secretary of the Treasury,
ORDER & OPINION
Before the court are the motion for summary judgment by the Alabama-Quassarte Tribal
Town (hereinafter “AQTT”) 1 [Docket No. 202] and Defendants’ cross-motion for summary
judgment 2 [Docket No. 212]. The AQTT argues that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law
because the decision of the Interior Board of Indian Appeal (hereinafter “IBIA”) is arbitrary,
capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law. Defendants
argue that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law and that the court should uphold the
The AQTT is a federally-recognized Indian tribe based in Wetumka, Oklahoma. The
AQTT ratified its constitution and bylaws on May 24, 1939, and subsequently received federal
recognition from the U.S. Department of the Interior (hereinafter “DOI”) for the purposes of
organizing under the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act (“hereinafter OIWA”). The AQTT is one of
three Creek Nation tribal towns organized and charged under OIWA pursuant to the provisions
of 25 U.S.C. § 503.
Local Civil Rule 7.1(b) provides that each motion or objection filed shall be a separate
pleading. Nevertheless, for the sake of expediency, the court overlooks the combined briefing.
IBIA decision because the IBIA properly determined that Defendants do not hold lease income
from the Wetumka Project lands in trust for AQTT.
The AQTT filed this case on December 29, 2006 against the United States, the Secretary
and the Associate Deputy Secretary of the DOI, and the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the
Treasury. The AQTT alleged that certain lands known as the Wetumka Project lands were
purchased under OIWA for the benefit of the AQTT. The AQTT requested a declaratory
judgment that the Defendants failed to fulfill their legal obligations and duties as trustees and an
order compelling Defendants: (1) to assign the Wetumka Project lands to the AQTT, and (2) to
provide the AQTT with a full and complete accounting of all the AQTT’s trust funds and assets.
On November 17, 2008, in ruling on the Defendants’ motion for partial judgment on the
pleadings, the court entered an Order & Opinion dismissing all claims related to the Wetumka
Project lands. The court found that the Wetumka Project lands were never placed in trust for the
AQTT, that the AQTT’s claims related to the Wetumka Project lands accrued on or before April
29, 1942, and that those claims, therefore, were time barred. Docket No. 50, pp. 7-14. The court
further found that the Muscokgee (Creek) Nation (hereinafter “Creek Nation”) 3 was a necessary
party to any claim regarding the Wetumka Project lands and could not be joined. Id. at 13-14.
The AQTT’s claims related to the alleged tribal trust account, the “Surface Lease Income Trust,”
The Creek Nation was given land in what is now Oklahoma and the right to perpetual
self-government by a treaty signed on March 24, 1832. The Creek Nation had a written
constitution providing for three branches of government as early as 1867. The Creek Nation
later adopted a constitution pursuant to OIWA in 1979.
remained, as the court had insufficient information even to determine whether it was still in
existence, much less whether the claim was timely. 4 Id.
On September 21, 2010, the court denied Defendants’ motion to dismiss and the parties’
cross motions for summary judgment. In that Order & Opinion, the court noted that from 1961
to 1976 income from surface leases on the Wetumka Project lands was deposited into IIM
account number xxxx0008 in the AQTT’s name. 5 At some point, the funds in that account were
moved into Proceeds of Labor (hereinafter “PL”) account number xxxx7067. The court
continued to refer to those funds as the “Surface Lease Income Trust.” The court found that
Defendants ignored substantial evidence demonstrating that the Surface Lease Income Trust was
created for the benefit of the AQTT and that Defendants’ conclusion on the ownership of the
Surface Lease Income Trust was arbitrary and capricious.
The court remanded this action to Defendants for additional investigation and
explanation. The court directed Defendants to assemble a full administrative record to include
all of the evidence they possess with regard to the Surface Lease Income Trust and to reconsider
their decision on the matter of ownership of that Trust. On remand, this action was referred to
the IBIA. The Creek Nation entered an appearance in the matter and submitted a brief on the
issues. Docket No. 185, Exh. 4. On October 23, 2014, the IBIA issued its final reconsidered
decision on referral from the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs. The IBIA determined that the
Surface Lease Income Trust was not held in trust for the AQTT.
According to the AQTT, between 1961 and 1976, income from surface leases derived
from the Wetumka Project lands was deposited into an Individual Indian Money (hereinafter
“IIM”) account in the AQTT’s name and was later transferred to a tribal trust account in its
name. The court termed this the “Surface Lease Income Trust.”
A letter from an Oklahoma Agency Field Representative indicated that as of August 31,
1989, the account balance was $32,364.31.
On March 3, 2015, the AQTT filed its First Amended Complaint, adding the Creek
Nation as a Defendant and adding a claim for appeal of the IBIA’s decision, arguing that it was
arbitrary and capricious. 6 On January 7, 2016, the court granted the Creek Nation’s motion to
dismiss, as it is entitled to and has not waived its sovereign immunity. Now before the court are
the cross-motions for summary judgment.
In reviewing an agency action, the court holds unlawful and sets aside any action,
findings or conclusions the court finds to be “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or
otherwise not in accordance with law.” 5 U.S.C. § 706(2). An agency action is arbitrary and
capricious “if the agency ‘entirely failed to consider an important aspect of the problem, offered
an explanation for its decision that runs counter to the evidence before the agency, or is so
implausible that it could not be ascribed to a difference in view or the product of agency
expertise.’” United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians of Okla. v. United States Dept. of
Housing and Urban Dev., 567 F.3d 1235, 1239 (10th Cir. 2009) (citation omitted). The standard
of review is narrow, and the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the agency. Id.
Nevertheless, the court must “engage in a substantial inquiry” and conduct a “thorough, probing,
in-depth review.” Id.
The AQTT also attempted to revive its claim requesting assignment of the Wetumka
Project lands, stating that on remand it discovered that the Creek Nation had passed a resolution
assigning the Wetumka Project lands to the AQTT. The court dismissed that claim again on
January 7, 2016, noting that the resolution was drafted, signed and filed with the United States in
1980, so the statute of limitations had passed. The AQTT disputes whether the resolution was a
public document. Even if it were not, the resolution does not establish ownership. It merely
states the intent of the Creek Nation that lands held in trust for tribal towns be assigned to those
tribal towns. Further action would be necessary to transfer the property.
The court remanded this action because it found Defendants had not provided a sufficient
explanation with supporting evidence for its determination that the United States did not hold
any trust assets for the AQTT. The court further found Defendants failed to consider important
aspects in making that determination. The court, therefore, directed Defendants to assemble a
full administrative record to include all of the evidence they possess with regard to the Surface
Lease Income Trust and reconsider their decision.
On remand, the Defendants followed the court’s directive. They assembled a full
administrative record, and the IBIA reconsidered the decision. 7 The IBIA noted that while the
legal significance of the historical facts and evidence was disputed, the historical facts
themselves were essentially undisputed. Then, after “a de novo review of the matter, considering
the evidence and arguments relied upon by the parties, as well as additional evidence in the
record,” the IBIA concluded that the record does not show an assignment of the Surface Lease
Income Trust to the AQTT and thus the Surface Lease Income Trust is not held in trust for the
AQTT. Docket No. 164, pp. 4 and 30.
The AQTT has argued and continues to argue that it was entitled to the Wetumka Project
lands and any income therefrom from the moment the lands were placed in trust. The AQTT
bases this assertion on the DOI’s intent that the lands be used for the AQTT’s benefit and the
AQTT’s subsequent use of the land and funds therefrom, without regard to whether the DOI’s
intent was ever formally and legally put into effect.
The IBIA described the record before it as being the record that was developed in the
discovery process in the proceedings before this court. The record is over 4,900 documents,
consisting of many more thousands of pages. The IBIA received final certification from the
Eastern Oklahoma Regional Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (hereinafter “BIA”) that to
the best of the Regional Director’s knowledge and belief, the record included all evidence the
Department possessed with regard to the Surface Lease Income Trust after a complete and
thorough search. Docket No. 164, Exh. 1, p. 4. Defendants filed a copy of the record with this
court. Docket No. 199.
After a thorough, probing, in-depth review, considering the evidence and arguments
relied upon by the parties, as well as additional evidence in the record, the court finds that the
IBIA’s Decision is well-reasoned and supported by the record. The IBIA recognized the DOI’s
original intent to eventually assign the Wetumka Project lands to the AQTT, the practice of
allowing the AQTT to use and benefit from the lands and the Surface Lease Income Trust (with
approval from the Creek Nation 8), the practice of referring to the Trust as belonging to the
AQTT, and the inclusion of the AQTT’s name on the name of the Trust account. The IBIA
reasoned, however, that the Wetumka Project lands remained in trust for the Creek Nation, the
right to income from land is one of the usual incidents of ownership of land, and the record does
not include or clearly point to the existence of a trust instrument transferring ownership in the
lands from the Creek Nation to the AQTT.
The IBIA further reasoned that the practice of allowing lands and income held in trust for
one tribe to be used for another is explained in this case by the DOI’s historical view (however
legally incorrect and objectionable to the AQTT 9) that the AQTT was a subordinate band within
the Creek Nation. As the AQTT and its members were considered to be part of the Creek
Nation, allowing the AQTT to benefit from the Wetumka Project lands and the income was not
inconsistent with the retention of beneficial title by the Creek Nation.
Although the DOI deviated from its policy in several instances, it required that the
Creek Nation approve expenditures from the Surface Lease Income Trust. The IBIA determined
that the BIA considered the Creek Nation’s 1985 Resolution acting on the AQTT’s budget as
granting “blanket approval” for further disbursements to the AQTT. Id. at 21. The record does
not show that the AQTT objected to the Creek Nation’s involvement prior to 1980. Id. at 3, 12,
18, 20, and 28.
The AQTT’s Constitution expressly provides that it “shall not in any way be construed
to alter, abridge or otherwise jeopardize the rights and privileges of the members of this Tribal
Town as citizens of the Creek Nation.” Id. at 6 and 18 (citing the AQTT Constitution, Art. IX).
The IBIA noted that it was undisputed that the AQTT citizens have dual citizenship in the AQTT
and in the Creek Nation. Id. at 18, n. 30.
Ultimately, the IBIA determined that the instruments that created the Surface Lease
Income Trust are the deeds of conveyance for the Wetumka Project lands. The deeds placed the
lands in trust “for the Creek Tribe” and did not create a vested beneficial interest in any entity
other than the Creek Tribe. 10 The deeds also authorized the Secretary to subsequently assign the
lands to another tribe, band, cooperative group organized under OIWA, or individual Indian.
This was a two-step process for the transfer of the property. Giving an example of other tribal
lands that were ultimately transferred to a tribal town with a formal written instrument, the IBIA
noted that in its view, “[t]he fact that both steps involved conveyances of property interest means
. . . that each step must be taken through a formal written instrument of conveyance.” Id. at 27.
For whatever reason, be it that the AQTT never developed a plan for the use of the lands 11 or for
some other reason, the lands were never so subsequently assigned.
With regard to the name on the Surface Lease Income Trust – the original IIM account
bore both the AQTT name and the Creek Nation name. While the PL account bore only the
AQTT name, the IBIA reasoned that it is unlikely the individual(s) who named the PL account
would have the authority to assign the Trust to the AQTT. The IBIA was not convinced that the
actions taken to move the funds from an IIM to a PL account in 1987 effected a legal change in
the beneficial ownership of the funds.
The IBIA’s Decision is not arbitrary or capricious. The IBIA considered every important
aspect of the problem and offered explanations for its Decision that were consistent with the
evidence before it. The Decision is well-reasoned and supported by the evidence. The Wetumka
Project lands were placed in trust for the Creek Nation. There was no evidence before the IBIA,
The DOI consistently treated the Creek Nation as the beneficial owner of the lands.
The deeds of conveyance did not assign the income to the AQTT, nor did they take the land in
trust for the Creek Nation for the use of the AQTT. Id. at 27.
See Id. at 8.
there is no evidence now before the court, and the AQTT has not pointed to the existence of any
evidence that the lands or the income therefrom were ever assigned to the AQTT. Accordingly,
the Decision of the IBIA is hereby AFFIRMED.
The AQTT’s motion for summary judgment [Docket No. 202] is hereby DENIED.
Defendants’ motion for summary judgment [Docket No. 212] is hereby GRANTED.
IT IS SO ORDERED this 30th day of December, 2016.
THE HONORABLE RONALD A. WHITE
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
EASTERN DISTRICT OF OKLAHOMA
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