Wilson et al v. Umpqua Indian Development Corporation et al
OPINION AND ORDER: Granting Motion to Dismiss Case for Lack of Jurisdiction 15 . Signed on 6/29/2017 by Judge Ann L. Aiken. (ck) Modified to read opinion and order on 6/30/2017 (ck).
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF OREGON
Case No. 6:17-cv-00123-AA
OPINION AND ORDER
UMPQUA INDIAN DEVELOPMENT
CORPORATION; SEVEN FEATHERS
CASINO AND HOTEL CORPORATION;
COW CREEK BAND OF UMPQUA INDIANS
TRIBAL COURT; TRIBAL COURT JUDGE
RONALD YOKIM, in his official capacity; and
Plaintiff Lisa Wilson asks this Court to reverse and remand an order of defendant Cow
Creek Band of Umpqua Indians Tribal Court ("Tribal Comt"). Plaintiff filed a personal injury
suit against defendants Umpqua Indian Development Corporation and Seven Feathers Casino
and Hotel Corporation (collectively, "the Tribe") in that comi. Tribal Comt Judge Ronald
Page 1 - OPINION AND ORDER
Yokim ("Judge Yokim"), another defendant in this action, granted the Tribe's motion for
summary judgment on the ground that plaintiff had failed to comply with the procedural
requirements of the Tribal Tmt Claims Code. Defendants moved to dismiss for lack of subject
matter jurisdiction, deficient service, and failure to state a claim. As explained in more detail
below, defendants' motion is granted because this Comt lacks subject matter jurisdiction over
plaintiffs claims and because those claims are barred by sovereign immunity.
On January 14, 2014, plaintiff was a guest at Seven Feathers Casino and Hotel when she
allegedly tripped on an "old, filthy and unsecured" floor mat near a door at the casino. Comp!.
11 (doc. 1). As a result of her fall, plaintiff asserts she sustained painful injuries to her shoulder,
knee, and hip. Id She further alleges the injuries required her to undergo extensive surgeries,
including a hip replacement. Id.
Plaintiff submitted a claim to the casino's risk management depaitment, which forwarded
it to Travelers Insurance ("Travelers"), the casino's insurer. On January 27, 2014, Travelers
denied plaintiffs claim on the grounds that "there is no evidence that a defect existed in or near
the doorway to cause [plaintiffs] fall at the time the incident accord" and "there is no evidence
to indicate negligence attributable to the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians
relative to this incident." Comp!. Ex. 3 (doc. 1-5).
On March 27, 2014, plaintiff filed a Notice of Tort Claim, seeking an estimated $1.6
million in damages. Comp!. Ex. 2 at 1 (doc. 1-4). Plaintiff served copies of the notice by
certified mail to the Tribal Chairperson of the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians, the General
Counsel of the Cow Creek Band ofUmpqua Indians, the Chief Executive Officer of the Umpqua
Indian Development Corporation, the General Manager/Loss Prevention Division of Seven
Feathers Hotel and Casino, and the Travelers adjuster. Id at 2.
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The Tribe's Board of Directors thereafter approved the case for Tribal Court. Comp!. if 7.
The case proceeded through discovery for two years, at which point the Tribe filed a motion for
summary judgment, arguing for the first time that the Tribal Court lacked jurisdiction over
plaintiffs claims because plaintiffs Notice of Tort Claim was deficient under the Tribal Tort
Claims Code. Id.
Judge Yokim agreed and dismissed the case. Comp!. Ex. 5 at 5 (doc. 1-
7). Specifically, Judge Yokim found that plaintiffs claims against the Tribe could proceed only
if she could demonstrate compliance with the Tribal Tort Claims Code, which effects a limited
waiver of the Tribe's sovereign immunity only when a tort plaintiff complies with the Code's
requirements. Id. at 4. Judge Yokim found that the Tribe's sovereign immunity remained intact
because the proof of service filed by plaintiffs attorney demonstrated that the Secretary for the
Board of Directors of the Tribe had not been served with notice of the claim within ninety days,
in violation of Tribal Tort Claims Code 4-40(a). Id. at 3. Judge Yokim also considered and
rejected plaintiffs argument that the Tribe had separately waived its sovereign immunity through
a liability insurance provision of Tribal-State Compact for Regulation of Class III Gaming
Between the Cow Creek Band ofUmpqua Tribe ofindians and the State of Oregon ("Compact").
Id. at 4.
Plaintiff appealed the decision to the Tribal Court's Appellate Division, which consists of
an Appeals Panel of the Tribe's Board of Directors. Comp!.
if 8 &
Ex. 6 (doc. 1-8). After full
briefing, the Appellate Panel denied the appeal without explaining its reasoning. Comp!. Ex. 6.
Plaintiff then filed suit in this Court. She asks this Comt to: (1) reverse the Tribal Comt's
summary judgment order and remand for a trial on the merits; (2) issue a declaratory judgment
finding that plaintiff has exhausted her tribal remedies and may now pursue her claims in state or
federal court, at her election; and (3) enjoin defendants, including the Tribal Comt and Judge
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Yokim, from interfering with plaintiffs pursuit of her claims in state court. Id. at 22-23. The
Comt heard oral argument on defendants' motion on June 12, 2017.
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1 ), a district comt must dismiss an action if
subject matter jurisdiction is lacking. A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(l) may attack either
the allegations of the complaint or the "existence of subject matter jurisdiction in fact."
Thornhill Publ'g Co., Inc. v. Gen. Tel. & Elec. Corp., 594 F.2d 730, 733 (9th Cir. 1979). The
party seeking to invoke the district court's jurisdiction bears the burden of establishing subject
matter jurisdiction. Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. ofAm., 511U.S.375, 377 (1994).
Because subject matter jurisdiction "involves a court's power to hear a case, [it] can
never be forfeited or waived." United States v. Cotton, 535 U.S. 625, 630 (2002). Federal comts
"have an independent obligation to deteimine whether subject-matter jurisdiction exists, even in
the absence of a challenge from any party." Arbaugh v. Y&H C01p., 546 U.S. 500, 514 (2006).
For example, a federal comt must dismiss a case predicated on federal question jurisdiction ifthe
well-pleaded complaint presents no claim "arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the
United States." 28 U.S.C. § 1331. A federal court also must dismiss a case ifthe plaintiff lacks
standing to sue. Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 501-02 (1975).
Even though sovereign immunity may be waived and is thus "quasi-jurisdictional," a
motion under R).lle 12(b)(1) is the proper vehicle for seeking dismissal on the ground of
sovereign immunity. Pistor v. Garcia, 791 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2015). "Tribal sovereign
immunity protects Indian tribes from suit absent express authorization from Congress or clear
waiver by the tribe." Cook v. AVI Casino Enters., Inc., 548 F.3d 718, 725 (9th Cir. 2008).
Sovereign immunity bars claims for injunctive and declaratory relief as well as claims for
damages. Imperial Granite Co. v. Pala Band of i\Iission Indians, 940 F.2d 1269, 1271 (9th Cir.
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1991). Plaintiff bears the burden of demonstrating a waiver of sovereign immunity. Pis tor, 791
F.3d at 1111. Waiver cannot be implied; it must be "express" and "unequivocal." Santa Clara
Pueblo v. lYfartinez, 436 U.S. 49, 58 (1978). Unlike when hearing a motion to dismiss for failure
to state a claim, a court considering whether sovereign immunity bars a suit need not assume that
the facts alleged in the complaint are true. Pistor, 791 F.3d at 1111. Instead, the court may hear
evidence and resolve factual disputes. Id.
Defendants argue that this Court lacks federal question jurisdiction over this action and
that plaintiffs claims are barred by sovereign immunity. Because these two arguments are
intertwined and claim-specific, I analyze both arguments for each of the three potential sources
of subject matter jurisdiction in the Complaint.
The Tribal Court's Interpretation of the Tribal Tort Claims Code
Federal district courts have jurisdiction to hear "all civil actions arising under the
Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Challenges to the extent
of a tribe's jurisdiction often raise a federal question under section 1331. Nat'! Farmers Union
Ins. Cos. v. Crow Tribe ofIndians, 471 U.S. 845, 857 (1985); lY!orongo Band of1Vfission Indians
v. Rose, 893 F.2d 1074, 1077 (9th Cir. 1990). For example, it is well-established that federal
comis have authority to police the outer boundaries of a tribe's jurisdiction over nonmembers.
See, e.g., Strate v. A-1 Contractors, 520 U.S. 438, 442 (1997) (considering the scope of "the
adjudicatory authority of tribal courts of personal injury actions against defendants who are not
tribal members"); Big Horn Country Elec. Coop., Inc. v. Adams, 219 F.3d 944, 947 (9th Cir.
2000) (analyzing whether a tribe could impose a tax on utility property owned by nonmembers
but located on trust land); 1Vforongo Band of 1Vfission Indians, 893 F.2d at 1077 (deciding
whether a tribe could require nonmembers to follow tribal rules about bingo games).
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As the Supreme Court explained in National Farmers Union, federal courts have subject
matter jurisdiction to consider "whether a tribal comi has exceeded its jurisdiction" when that
question can be answered "by reference to federal law." 471 U.S. at 852-53. For example,
Congress has "divested" tribal comis of jurisdiction to "try and to punish non-Indians for
offenses committed on the reservation." Id. at 853 (citing Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe,
435 U.S. 191, 204 (1978)). That limitation on tribal courts' jurisdiction comes from a federal
statute authorizing the United States to punish non-Indians for crimes committed on Indian land.
Any dispute about the extent of that limitation therefore presents a federal question. If
proceedings are initiated against a non-Indian in tribal comi, federal courts have the power to
determine whether the tribal cmni's assertion of jurisdiction exceeds the limits set by Congress.
Conversely, if a tribal couti dismisses an action because it concludes a federal law deprives it of
the power to hear a given case, a federal court has jurisdiction to review that determination.
But ''.jurisdiction" is not a magic word that automatically creates a federal question in the
Indian law context. Rather, whether a dispute about the extent of a tribal comi's jurisdiction
raises a federal question depends on the source of the limitation on jurisdiction. Here, the Tribal
Comi dismissed based on a jurisdictional limitation imposed by tribal law. Specifically, Judge
Yokim held that the Tribal Toti Claims Code sets limits for which claims can be adjudicated in
tribal court and which must be dismissed on the grounds of sovereign immunity. Plaintiff now
argues that Judge Yokim erred and that the Tribal Court did have jurisdiction. The pmiies'
dispute about the limits of the Tribal Court's jurisdiction does not arise under federal law, but
under tribal law. Because it is undisputed that the Tribal Court had jurisdiction to analyze
whether plaintiff had complied with the Tribal Tort Claims Code's procedural requirements, this
Court has no authority to revisit those findings. See AT&T Corp. v. Coeur d'Alene Tribe, 295
Page 6 - OPINION AND ORDER
F.3d 899, 904 (9th Cir. 2002) ("[F]ederal courts may not readjudicate questions-whether of
federal, state or tribal law- ... absent a finding that the tribal court lacked jurisdiction or that its
judgment be denied comity for some other valid reason.")
At oral argument, plaintiff framed the question somewhat differently, contending that
whether the Tribal Court Claims Ordinance may be strictly applied against a non-native presents
a federal question. "[A] tribe's claim for enforcement of its ordinance against [a] non-Indian"
arises under federal law. lvforongo Band oj}vfission Indians, 893 F.2d at 1077. Conversely, after
she has exhausted tribal remedies, a non-Indian may sue in federal court to challenge a tribe's
authority to require her to comply with tribal law. Id.
This case is unlike lvforongo and similar cases because plaintiff does not broadly attack
the Tribe's authority to require her to comply with a tribal law. For example, plaintiff does not
challenge tribes' authority to require non-Indians injured on tribal land to litigate their t01i claims
in tribal court. Nor does she dispute that, as a general matter, tribes may require non-Indians to
comply with procedural rules when they sue in tribal court. Her argument is narrower; she
contends that the Tribal Court lacks authority to interpret the Tribal Tort Claims Code's notice
requirements so strictly against a non-Indian, particularly when it is clear that all relevant parties
had actual notice of the claim. Whether Congress has placed such a limit on tribal courts'
authority is a federal question. But having identified a federal question does not get plaintiff far,
because she has not cited any federal law as the source of this alleged limitation. As the
Supreme Cami explained in Iowa j\!futual Insurance Company v. LaP/ante, 480 U.S. 9, 18
(1987), "[t]ribal authority over the activities of non-Indians on reservation lands is an important
part of tribal sovereignty." Absent a clear statement from Congress that it intends to limit tribal
jurisdiction over non-Indians, "the proper inference from silence is that the sovereign power
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remains intact." Id. (quoting A·Jerrion v. Jicarilla Apache Tribe, 455 U.S. 130, 149 n.14 (1982))
(ellipses omitted). Thus, the Tribal Court did not exceed any federally-imposed limit on its
jurisdiction when it strictly interpreted the tribal ordinance and dismissed plaintiffs claims.
Moreover, all plaintiffs arguments about the interpretation of the Tribal Tort Claims
Code are barred by sovereign immunity. Although the Tribal Tort Claims Code contains an
express, unequivocal waiver of sovereign immunity with respect to ce1iain tort suits in Tribal
Court, it does not waive immunity to suits in federal comi seeking to interpret or enforce the
tenns of the Code.
The Purported Conflict Between Tribal Law and the Compact
Plaintiff also argues that the Complaint presents a federal question because she
challenges the Tribal T01i Claims Code on the ground that it conflicts with the Compact. 1
Disputes about gaming compacts may raise federal questions because such compacts are "quite
clearly ... creation[s] of federal law." Cabazon Band ofivfission Indians v. Wilson, 124 F.3d
1050, 1056 (9th Cir. 1997). But here, any conflict between the Compact and tribal law cannot
suppo1i federal question jurisdiction because plaintiff, who is neither a pmiy to the Compact nor
an intended third-party beneficiary of the Compact, lacks standing to enforce its terms.
"A party can enforce a third-pmiy contract only if it reflects an express or implied
intention of the parties to the contract to benefit the third party." Kremen v. Cohen, 337 F.3d
1024, 1029 (9th Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks omitted). Through the Compact, the Tribe
waived its immunity "in courts of competent jurisdiction for the limited purpose of enforcing this
Compact." Compact art. XII(E)(3)(b). Although that waiver is express and unequivocal, it does
The Compact was attached as an exhibit to plaintiffs snn-eply and request for judicial
notice. See Doc. 23-1. Becanse the Compact is a matter of public record, plaintiffs request for
judicial notice of the Compact is granted. See Fed. R. Evid. 201.
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not help plaintiff because only the patties to the contract (the Tribe and the State of Oregon) and
third-party beneficiaries "individually identified by name herein and expressly described as
intended beneficiaries" have standing to enforce the Compact. Id. art. XIV(E). Plaintiff is not
individually named in the Compact.
Thus, plaintiff is barred from asserting any argument
premised on breach of contract, including plaintiffs arguments that requiring strict compliance
with the Tribal T011 Claims Code frustrates the purpose of the Compact and that she is excused
from following the Code's procedural rules because the Compact did not notify her of those
requirements. 2 See Consentino v. Penchange Band of Luiseno J'v!ission Indians, 637 F. App'x
381, 382 (9th Cir. 2016).
Plaintiff separately argues that the Compact's provision on commercial liability insurance
is an express, unequivocal waiver of sovereign immunity. That provision requires the Tribe's
insurance policy to contain an endorsement "providing that the insurer may not invoke Tribal
sovereign immunity up to the limits of the policy in state, federal, or Tribal court, including
when the Tribe or an entity of the Tribe is a named defendant." Id. art. VIII(G). Plaintiff argues
that by agreeing to this provision, the Tribe broadly waived its sovereign immunity for personalinjury suits related to its gaming operations up to its insurance policy limits. She also argues that
the waiver overrides the procedural requirements of the Tribal Tort Claims Code because the
Compact contains no reference to the Code.
In support of this second argument, plaintiff asks this Comt to take judicial notice of
two tribal-state gaming compacts from California. Doc. 17-1. Because the compacts are matters
of public record, plaintiffs request is granted. See Fed. R. Evid. 201. Plaintiff correctly notes
that the judicially-noticed compacts, unlike the Compact at issue here, specifically reference the
procedures with which a plaintiff must comply to file a tort claim. But plaintiff has not
explained how that fact gives her standing to enforce the Compact or demonstrates an express,
unequivocal waiver of sovereign immunity.
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The liability insurance provision falls short of the high bar to show waiver of sovereign
By its terms, the provision governs only an insurer's assertion of sovereign
immunity. The insurance company is not a party to this lawsuit. Moreover, the insurance
company here denied coverage on the merits, not by invoking sovereign immunity. See Comp!.
Ex. 3 (doc. 1-5). Plaintiff essentially argues that including a provision like this in the Compact
only makes sense if the Tribe has agreed to waive sovereign immunity for personal-injury suits.
That inference is plausible, but it amounts to evidence of implicit waiver, which is insufficient to
pierce sovereign immunity. See Santa Clara Pueblo, 436 U.S. at 58. Moreover, because the
contract is silent regarding procedural requirements for bringing a tmt claim, there is no
"unequivocal" expansion of the Tribal Tott Claims Code's waiver of sovereign immunity to
override the requirement to comply with the Tribal Tort Claims Code.
Campo Band of }vfission Indians v. Superior Court, 39 Cal. Rptr. 3d 857 (Cal. Ct. App.
2006), does not change the analysis. First, the provision of the Compact at issue in Campo was
materially different than the provision at issue here. Rather than limiting the defenses available
to the Tribe's insurer, the compact at issue in Campo broadly provided that the Tribe did not
"waive its immunity to suit except to the extent of the policy limits and insurance coverage
[provided for therein}." Id. at 882 (emphasis and alteration in original).
Second, in Campo, the compact provided that tort claims would be addressed through
arbitration. Id. at 879. The Tribe's Executive Committee denied the plaintiffs tort claim on
procedural grounds, before reaching arbitration. The plaintiff filed suit in state court, seeking to
compel arbitration, and the Tribe moved to dismiss on sovereign immunity grounds. Id. at 880.
The state trial court found that, pursuant to a provision of the compact requiring the Tribe to
provide "reasonable assurance that patron claims would be promptly and fairly adjudicated," the
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Tribe had waived its sovereign immunity for the limited purposes of a suit to compel arbitration.
The co mi's order included a directive that the arbitrator must reach the merits of the
plaintiffs claim rather than deny it on procedural grounds.
The California Court of Appeal affirmed the order compelling arbitration but vacated the
trial court's conunand to reach the merits. Id. at 883. The court held that the Tribe retained the
authority to choose the forum in which to1i claims would be adjudicated, and that both the
procedural and substantive aspects of the patiies' arguments therefore should be adjudicated by
the arbitrator rather than by the state court. Id.
Here, the Compact does not contain a provision analogous to the prompt and fair
adjudication provision in Campo. Moreover, unlike in Campo, the disputes about plaintiffs
compliance with procedural requirements and the purported conflict between the Compact and
tribal law were fully adjudicated, not summarily dismissed. In other words, plaintiff has already
received the remedy ordered by the Campos comi: a hearing in the Tribe's chosen forum (here,
Tribal Comi) on whether she met the requirements necessary to proceed with her tmi claim.
Because plaintiff has not identified an unequivocal waiver of defendants' sovereign immunity
with respect to her arguments regarding the Compact, those arguments are baned by sovereign
Finally, plaintiff alleges that the notice of claim requirements of the Tribal Toti Claims
Code violate due process because they are "inconsistent, unclear, and confusing." Comp!.
Defendants correctly point out that plaintiff cannot assert a constitutional due process claim
because the Tribe is neither the federal government nor a state. Santa Clara Pueblo, 436 U.S. at
The Indian Civil Rights Act ("ICRA"), a federal statute, imposes due process
Page 11 - OPINION AND ORDER
requirements on federally-recognized tribes. 25 U.S.C. § 1302(a)(8). But any claim under ICRA
is ban·ed by sovereign immunity. Santa Clara Pueblo, 436 U.S. at 59. The ICRA narrowly
waives tribes' immunity in federal court when violations of the ICRA are asserted through
petitions for habeas corpus. Id at 66; 25 U.S.C. § 1303. But because plaintiff is not in tribal
custody, she cannot file such a petition.
At bottom, plaintiffs complaint is about fairness.
prosecuted her claim in Tribal court.
For years, plaintiff diligently
At oral argument, plaintiffs counsel stated that he
exchanged emails, letters, and discovery with defendants' lawyers, including visiting the site of
the accident with the Tribe's attorney, the Tribe's expert, and the casino's risk manager. At no
point did defendants or their lawyers indicate to him that notice was deficient. Plaintiff received
numerous confinnations that her suit was progressing, including a signed acknowledgement from
the Tribe's Board of Directors. Then, after two years, the Tribe for the first time argued that
plaintiffs suit could not proceed, based on her failure to serve notice of a tort claim on the
secretary of that same Board of Directors. Plaintiff now finds herself batTed from court based on
what appears to be a minor, technical violation of the law.
But this Comi has no freestanding authority to decide whether plaintiff has been fairly
treated by a sovereign entity. Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction which "possess
only that power authorized by Constitution and statute." Kokkonen, 511 U.S. at 377. Moreover,
comis cannot ignore principles of sovereign immunity simply because dismissing a suit may
have "harsh" consequences. Hajro v. US. Citizenship & Immigration Servs., 811 F.3d 1086,
1098-99 (9th Cir. 2015).
Federal comis have no power to "simply . . . waive sovereign
immunity where Congress [or the Tribe] has not." Id at 1099 (citing United States v. Park Place
Page 12 - OPINION AND ORDER
Assocs., Ltd., 563 F.3d 907, 935 (9th Cir. 2009)). The Complaint must be dismissed because it
fails to present a federal question as to which the Tribe has unequivocally waived its sovereign
immunity in federal court.
Defendants' motion (doc. 15) is GRANTED and this action is DISMISSED. 3 Dismissal
1s with prejudice because no amendment to the Complaint could cure its jurisdictional
IT IS SO ORDERED. /
United States District Judge
Because the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over this action, it is not necessary to
address defendants' arguments under Rules 12(b)(5) and 12(b)(6).
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