El Paso Natural Gas Company v. Neztsosie

PETITIONER: El Paso Natural Gas Company
LOCATION: Attorney General Office

DOCKET NO.: 98-6
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 526 US 473 (1999)
ARGUED: Mar 02, 1999
DECIDED: May 03, 1999

H. Bartow Farr, III - Argued the cause for the respondents
James R. Atwood - Argued the cause for the petitioners
Jonathan E. Nuechterlein - Argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court

Facts of the case

In 1995, Laura and Arlinda Neztsosie, and others, filed separate lawsuits in the Navajo Tribal Courts, claiming damages for injuries suffered as a result of El Paso Natural Gas Corporation's and Cyprus Foote Mineral Company's uranium mining operations. El Paso and Cyprus Foote, defendants in those suits, each filed suit in Federal District Court, seeking to enjoin the Neztsosies from pursuing their tribal court claims. The District Court denied preliminary injunctions except to the extent that the Neztsosies sought relief in the Tribal Courts under the Price-Anderson Act. The Price-Anderson Act provides certain federal licensees with limited liability for claims of "public liability" arising out of or resulting from a nuclear incident, converts such actions into federal claims, grants federal district courts removal jurisdiction over such actions, and provides the mechanics for consolidating the actions and for managing them once consolidated. The District Court left the determinations whether the Act applied to the Neztsosies' claims to the Tribal Courts. On El Paso's and Cyprus Foote's consolidated appeals, the Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's decisions not to enjoin the Neztsosies from pursuing non-Price-Anderson Act claims and to allow the Tribal Courts to decide whether the Neztsosies' claims fell under that Act. Further, although the Neztsosies had not appealed the partial injunctions, the Court of Appeals moved on its own to reverse them.


Do tribal courts have the authority to determine its own jurisdiction over damage actions stemming from nuclear incidents under the Price-Anderson Act, which grants federal district courts removal jurisdiction over such actions?

Media for El Paso Natural Gas Company v. Neztsosie

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 02, 1999 in El Paso Natural Gas Company v. Neztsosie

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 03, 1999 in El Paso Natural Gas Company v. Neztsosie

David H. Souter:

The second of the two cases that I have to announce this morning is El Paso Natural Gas Company against Neztsosie, No.98-6.

This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The Respondents Laura and Arlinda Neztsosie and Zonnie Richards, all members of the Navajo Nation, separately sued the petitioners El Paso Natural Gas Corporation and Cyprus Foote Mineral Company in Navajo Tribal Court.

They alleged that they have been injured by radiation from open pit mines operated by the petitioners.

The companies, the petitioners, then brought suit in United States District Court to block the claims pending against them in Tribal Court.

The District Court issued an injunction that said that "the Tribal Courts could not hear any claims that fell under the Price-Anderson Act, a Federal Act designed in part to transform State Court claims relating to nuclear accidents into federal cases".

But the District Court left it to the Tribal Court to decide whether respondent's actual claims were infact claims under the Price-Anderson Act.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed, it said that the District Court had to let the Tribal Courts decide whether respondent's claims fell under the Price-Anderson act, and the Ninth Circuit then added that it was vacating the District Court's injunction barring the Tribal Court from hearing the Price-Anderson Claims.

In a unanimous opinion filed today with the Clerk of Court we vacate and remand.

We first note that in respondent's appeal to the Ninth Circuit they did not ask it to vacate the injunction against the Tribal Courts.

It is a well established rule where a party has not appealed an adverse ruling in a District Court decision, the Court of Appeals may not address the unappealed ruling.

The purpose of the rule is to protect the orderly function of the judicial system by giving opposing parties advance notice of what issues will be litigated on appeal and allowing the unappealed issues to remain settled.

We need not decide whether this is a rule of practice which might conceivably have exceptions or a rule of jurisdiction to which no exception can be made.

Because in this case there was clearly no interest sufficient to justify any exception, we therefore reverse the Court of Appeals' vacation of the unappealed portion of the District Court's injunction.

Next we consider whether the District Court should have decided itself whether respondent's claim were in fact Price-Anderson Act Claims.

The Ninth Circuit relied on a doctrine known as Tribal Court exhaustion to leave that determination to the Tribal Courts in the first instance.

The idea behind this doctrine which we announced in National Farmers Union Insurance versus Crow Tribe and Iowa mutual versus LaPlante, is that as a prudential matter a Federal Court should normally allow the Tribal Court system to decide whether it has jurisdiction over a given case, before the Federal Court makes its decision about whether the Tribal Court indeed has jurisdiction.

We hold, however that this doctrine does not apply in the special circumstances of the Price-Anderson Act.

The Price-Anderson Act converts nuclear accident cases brought in State Court into federal cases, without requiring the Federal Court to wait for the State Court system to decide if the claims belong in Federal Court.

We cannot imagine that Congress intended to treat nuclear accident claims brought in Tribal Court differently, by requiring them to go through the Tribal Court system before deciding whether they belong in Federal Court.

The purpose of the Price-Anderson Act is to encourage the speedy and efficient resolution of nuclear accident cases in Federal Court and this purpose applies as much to claims originally brought in Tribal Court, as to those originating in State Court.

We accordingly vacate the judgment of the Court of Appeals with instructions to remand that the District Court for proceedings consistent with our opinion.