United States v. Tohono O'odham Nation

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: Tohono O'odham Nation
LOCATION: Tohono O'odham Nation

DOCKET NO.: 09-846
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

CITATION: 563 US 307 (2011)
GRANTED: Apr 19, 2010
ARGUED: Nov 01, 2010
DECIDED: Apr 26, 2011

ADVOCATES:
Anthony A. Yang - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the petitioner
Danielle Spinelli - for the respondent

Facts of the case

In 2006, the Tohono O'odham Nation of Southern Arizona filed a complaint against the United States in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, arguing that the United States government handled $2.1 billion in transactions for the nation between 1972 and 1992 and "has never fulfilled its duty to provide a true and adequate accounting' of the trust funds. The lawsuit also alleged "gross mismanagement" by the federal government. One day later, the tribe filed a similar complaint against the United States in the Court of Federal Claims seeking monetary damages for the earnings shortfall in its trust accounts. The Court of Federal Claims dismissed the lawsuit because a similar claim was being heard by a different court in violation of 28 U.S.C. § 1500. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed the CFC's dismissal of the case, concluding, "the Nation's complaint in the Court of Federal Claims seeks relief that is different from the relief sought in its earlier-filed district court action."

Question

A federal statute provides that the Court of Federal Claims lacks jurisdiction to hear a suit against the federal government raising a claim that is already being litigated against the government in another court. Does this provision apply when the plaintiff brings a lawsuit in both the Court of Federal Claims and another court based on the same set of facts, but seeks different forms of relief in the two cases?

Media for United States v. Tohono O'odham Nation

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 01, 2010 in United States v. Tohono O'odham Nation

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 26, 2011 in United States v. Tohono O'odham Nation

Anthony M. Kennedy:

The -- the Tohono O'odham Nation is an Indian tribe with federal recognition.

The Nation's main reservation is in the Sonoran Desert, which is in Southern Arizona.

And counting this and other reservation lands, the Nation's land holdings are approximately 3 million acres.

The case turned on a relationship between two suits that the Indian Nation filed.

First, the Nation sued federal officers in United States District Court for alleged violations of fiduciary duty with respect to tribal assets that the Government holds in trust.

Second and on the next day, the Nation sued the United States in the Court of Federal Claims for the same violations.

Now, a federal statute, which was enacted in 1868, is designed to limit duplicate suits against the Government.

The statute bars jurisdiction in the Court of Federal Claims over any claim "for or in respect to" which the plaintiff has another suit pending in another court.

And so here, the question to be resolved is what it means for two suits to be "for or in respect to" the same claim.

In a case called Keene versus United States, this Court held that two suits are “for in respect to” the same claim when they are "based on substantially the same operative facts -- at least if there is some overlap in the relief requested."

Keene therefore narrows the permissible constructions of the statute to one of two interpretations, either the statute requires substantial factual and some remedial overlap, or it requires substantial factual overlap without more.

The Court opinion today concludes that factual overlap is sufficient to trigger the statute's jurisdictional bar.

The text of the statute precludes jurisdiction in the Court of Federal Claims not only the plaintiff sues on an identical claim elsewhere, that is a suit for the same claim -- but also if the plaintiff's other action is related but not identical, that is a suit "in respect to" the same claim.

The meaning of the phrase "in respect to" is not immediately apparent but it does suggest the broad prohibition on redundant lawsuits, and for the reasons the opinion explains, the statutory phrase refers to facts, not remedies.

Hence, the statute bars jurisdiction in the Court of Federal Claims, when the plaintiff has a suit based on substantially the same operative facts, it's pending elsewhere and here, the Nation's two suits involve almost identical operative facts, they relate to the same trust assets, and they describe almost identical alleged breaches of fiduciary duty.

The Court of Federal Appeals' action -- the Court of Federal Claims' action must therefore be dismissed.

The contrary judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit is reversed.

Justice Sotomayor has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Justice Breyer joins.

Justice Ginsburg has filed a dissenting opinion.

Justice Kagan took no part in consideration or decision of the case.