Lewis v. Clarke

PETITIONER: Brian Lewis, et al.
RESPONDENT: William Clark
LOCATION: Interstate 95 in Norwalk, CT

DOCKET NO.: 15-1500
LOWER COURT: Connecticut Supreme Court

GRANTED: Sep 29, 2016
ARGUED: Jan 09, 2017

Ann O'Connell - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States, as amicus curiae
Eric D. Miller - for the petitioners
Neal Kumar Katyal - For the Respondent

Facts of the case

On October 22, 2011, Brian Lewis was driving southbound on Interstate 95 in Norwalk, Connecticut, when William Clarke crashed into him while driving a limousine owned by the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority. Lewis sued Clarke, claiming that he was injured as a result of Clarke’s negligent and careless driving. Clarke filed a motion to dismiss the complaint and argued that, because he was driving the limousine as an employee of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because he was entitled to tribal sovereign immunity. The trial court denied the motion and held that it did not lack subject matter jurisdiction under the doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity because Lewis sought damages from Clarke personally, not from the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority. The Connecticut Supreme Court reversed and held that tribal sovereign immunity extended to Clarke as a member of the tribe acting within the scope of his employment as a limousine driver with the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority.


Does the doctrine of sovereign immunity of an Indian tribe bar individual-capacity damages against tribal employees for torts committed within the scope of their employment?

Media for Lewis v. Clarke

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 09, 2017 in Lewis v. Clarke

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

We'll hear argument next this morning in case 15-1500 Lewis v. Clarke. Mr. Miller.

Eric D. Miller:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court: In an individual capacity action against a government employee, the plaintiff seeks relief from the employee personally.

The judgment is not enforceable against the government.

For that reason, such an action does not implicate sovereign immunity.

This Court has repeatedly applied that principle to individual capacity actions against federal and state employees, and it applies equally when the defendant is an employee of an Indian tribe. In advocating the contrary rule, respondent takes the position that plaintiffs who have had no connection to an Indian tribe whatsoever who were injured as a result of a tribal employee's negligence in carrying on a commercial activity miles away from a reservation should have no remedy except whatever the tribe chooses to provide in tribal court.

That position represents an extraordinary and unwarranted expansion of tribal immunity.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

They say it's the same as if it were federal employee, then you would have the Westfall Act.

If it was a state employee, you would have the same regime, and the tribe says, "And we do the same thing." You can sue in our court just as you could sue in federal court under the Westfall Act -- Connecticut court under the Connecticut Act, and you can sue in our court.

Eric D. Miller:

Well, and when a claim arises, you know, within the reservation that is subject to the tribe's legislative and adjudicatory jurisdiction, then the tribe has the authority to define how that claim shall be handled. But here, we're talking about a claim that arose under Connecticut law from an accident on a Connecticut highway not on the reservation, and the tribe does not have the authority to define the process for handling that claim.

That's subject to Connecticut law. So the -- the analogy, I think, that they're trying to draw is if you had an employee of one state who, you know, was involved in an accident in a different state -- and there are a lot of reasons that situation isn't really analogous, but even taking it on its own terms, the forum state has jurisdiction over that case.

The forum state can resolve that.

It doesn't have to send the -- send the plaintiffs off to file in -- in the state of -- that the employee was from. So there -- what the -- what the respondent is asking for here is a sort of immunity, a sort of ability to control how the litigation proceeds that is unlike what any other state would enjoy.

And in his briefing --

Sonia Sotomayor:

There is one flaw there. Under our decision in Hyatt, Clarke would have been entitled to the immunity that Connecticut gave its own officials.

Eric D. Miller:

Well, there are a couple of antecedent questions there, Your Honor.

Sonia Sotomayor:

I agree.

Eric D. Miller:

So, one, Hyatt is about the full faith and credit clause, which applies --

Sonia Sotomayor:

Hyatt does not --

Eric D. Miller:

-- only to states and not -- not tribes.

Sonia Sotomayor:

-- the tribes.

Eric D. Miller:

Hyatt is also about an action against a state agency and not an individual capacity action against a state employee.

Sonia Sotomayor:

You're absolutely true. We haven't extended Hyatt that far yet.

Eric D. Miller:

But even granting both of those extensions of the decision, the rule in -- in Hyatt is that the State cannot treat another state worse than it would treat itself. So if you applied the analogy here, you would say that Connecticut has a regime in which an action against a state employee is barred, but instead you sue the state directly. So applying that here, you would say, well, we can't sue Mr. Clarke, so instead we get to sue the tribe.

But the tribe doesn't want that because the tribe is not willing to subject itself to jurisdiction in Connecticut.

The tribe has not waived its sovereign immunity in Connecticut courts.

So the tribe is not asking for application of that principle of Hyatt; it's asking for something quite a bit more.

And it's -- what it is asking for is the authority to legislate for how litigation arising out of vehicle accidents off the reservation in the state of Connecticut shall be handled, and that's an authority --

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Well, just -- just so I understand the case: If this plaintiff had elected to sue in the tribal court, the rule would have been that there is indemnity from the tribe.

And if there -- if negligence had been shown, then I assume there would be recovery against the tribe?

Eric D. Miller:

The -- the tribe -- yeah, yes.