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Cherokee Nation of Okla. v. United States

Citation: 28 ELR 20008
No. 95-5055, 124 F.3d 1413/(Fed. Cir., 09/05/1997)

The court holds that a trial court improperly stayed proceedings in which Native American tribes sought damages from the United States for failure to manage certain tribal lands. The court first holds that the reason for the stay—the need to quiet title to the tribal lands before the case can proceed against the United States—falls short of the "pressing need" required when a trial court seeks to suspend its proceedings indefinitely. The tribes could prove that the United States breached its duty as trustee to identify the trust res, even if the United States never files quiet title actions. In fact, each day the United States does not fulfill its duty to identify and protect the trust res potentially aggravates the alleged breach. Further, having identified certain Native American lands in its own surveys, the United States allegedly had an affirmative duty to manage those lands for the benefit of the tribes. Thus, judgment on the tribes' claims need not await a final determination of whether the United States correctly or incorrectly identified the trust res in its surveys. Even if the court required settlement of title disputes before permitting the breach of duty claims to proceed, the title disputes over tribal lands where the United States and the tribes are the only potential claimants lie within the jurisdiction of the trial court. Likewise, where the only claimants to the land are the tribes and third parties occupying easements granted by the United States, the trial court may, incidentally to determining the claims before it, determine the true ownership of the lands.

The court next holds that the trial court did not properly weigh the countervailing costs of the stay to the tribes. The tribes have a significant interest in avoiding the stay to preserve their access to court. In addition, the stay places the tribes at the mercy of the party against whom they seek redress, because the tribes cannot pursue their claims against the United States until the government files and prosecutes the quiet title actions. Furthermore, the trial court's decision to postpone resolution of the breach claim impairs the tribes' ability to plead their causes, because with the passage of time, memories will fade, litigation costs will balloon, and resolve will dwindle.

Counsel for Plaintiff
James Hamilton
Swidler & Berlin
3000 K St. NW, Ste. 300, Washington DC 20007
(202) 424-7500

Counsel for Defendant
Thornton W. Field
Environment and Natural Resources Division
U.S. Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 514-2000

Before Michel and Lourie, JJ.