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El Paso Natural Gas Co. v. Neztsosie

Citation: 29 ELR 21099
No. 98-6, 119 S. Ct. 1430/(U.S., 05/03/1999)

The Court holds that the tribal exhaustion doctrine does not require a district court to abstain from deciding whether Native Americans' tort claims arising from uranium mining on their reservation constitute public liability actions under the Price-Anderson Act. The defendant companies filed suit in district court seeking to enjoin the Native Americans from pursuing their claims in tribal court. Asserting the doctrine of tribal exhaustion, the district court denied the preliminary injunctions except to the extent that the Native Americans sought relief in the tribal courts under the Price-Anderson Act. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision not to enjoin the Native Americans from pursuing non-Price-Anderson Act claims in tribal court. However, the circuit court reversed the preliminary injunctions sua sponte, holding that the Price-Anderson Act contained no express jurisdictional prohibition barring the tribal court from determining its jurisdiction over Price-Anderson Act claims.

The Court first holds that because the Native Americans did not appeal those portions of the district court's orders enjoining them from pursuing Price-Anderson Act claims in tribal court, the Ninth Circuit erred in addressing them. The "comity considerations" invoked by the Ninth Circuit to justify its actions are clearly inadequate to defeat the institutional interests in fair notice and repose. Moreover, fairness of notice does not turn on the interlocutory character of the orders at issue here, and while the interest in repose is somewhat diminished when a final appeal may yet raise the issue, it is still considerable owing to the indefinite duration of the injunctions.

The Court next holds that the comity rationale for tribal exhaustion normally appropriate to a tribal court's determination of its jurisdiction stops short of the Price-Anderson Act. The Act not only gives a district court original jurisdiction over any public liability action arising out of or resulting from a nuclear accident, but provides for removal to federal court as of right if a putative Price-Anderson action is brought in a state court. Congress thus expressed an unmistakable preference for a federal forum, and the apparent reasons for this congressional policy of immediate access to federal forums are as much applicable to tribal- as to state-court litigation. Accordingly, the district court should have decided whether the Native Americans' claims fell under the Price-Anderson Act.

[A prior decision in this litigation is published at 28 ELR 20550.]

Counsel for Petitioners
Eric A. Mark
O'Connor, Cavanagh, Anderson, Killingsworth & Beshears
One E. Camelback Rd., Ste. 1100, Phoenix AZ 85012
(602) 263-2400

Counsel for Respondents
Seth R. Lesser
Bernstein, Litowitz, Berger & Grossmann
1285 Avenue of the Americas, New York NY 10019
(212) 554-1400