United States v. White Mt. Apache Tribe

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: White Mt. Apache Tribe
LOCATION: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

DOCKET NO.: 01-1067
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

CITATION: 537 US 465 (2003)
ARGUED: Dec 02, 2002
DECIDED: Mar 04, 2003

ADVOCATES:
Gregory G. Garre - Argued the cause for the petitioner
John E. Echohawk - for the National Congress of American Indians as amicus curiae urging affirmance
Robert C. Brauchli - On behalf of the respondent
Tracy A. Labin - for the National Congress of American Indians as amicus curiae urging affirmance

Facts of the case

Under Public Law 86-392, the former Fort Apache Military Reservation is held in trust for the White Mountain Apache Tribe. The Tribe sued the federal government to rehabilitate the property, alleging that the United States had breached a fiduciary duty to maintain, protect, repair, and preserve it. In its motion to dismiss, the federal government argued that jurisdiction was lacking here because no statute or regulation could be read to impose a legal obligation on it to maintain or restore the trust property, let alone authorize compensation for breach. The Court of Federal Claims agreed and dismissed the complaint. In reversing, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit concluded that the federal government's property use triggered a common-law trustee's duty to act reasonably to preserve any property the Secretary of the Interior chose to utilize, which also supported a money damages claim.

Question

Does the Court of Federal Claims, under the Indian Tucker Act, have jurisdiction over the White Mountain Apache Tribe's suit against the United States for breach of fiduciary duty to manage land and improvements held in trust for the Tribe but occupied by the federal government?

Media for United States v. White Mt. Apache Tribe

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 02, 2002 in United States v. White Mt. Apache Tribe

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 04, 2003 in United States v. White Mt. Apache Tribe

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 01-1067, United States versus White Mt. Apache Tribe will be announced by Justice Souter.

David H. Souter:

This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

A 1960 statute declared that the former Fort Apache Military Reservation was held by the United States in trust for the White Mountain Apache Tribe subject to the right of the Secretary of the Interior to use any part of the land in improvements.

The Secretary has exercised this right with respect to about 30 of the post buildings and appurtenances.

In 1993, the Tribe commissioned in assessment of the property resulting in a finding that it was in need of rehabilitation expected to cost about $14 million.

This is the amount that Tribe sought when it subsequently sued the United States citing the terms of the 1960 Act and alleging that the United States had breached its fiduciary duty to maintain, protect, repair, and preserve the trust property.

In response, the Government acknowledge that the under the Indian Tucker Act, it was subject to the jurisdiction of the Court of Federal Claims with respect to certain tribal claims.

But the Government stressed that the waiver of sovereign immunity operated only when underlying substantive law could be fairly be read as giving rise to a particular duty breach of which should be compensable in money damages.

Here the Government argued, no statute or regulation not even the 1960 Act could fairly be read to impose a legal obligation to maintain the property, let alone authorized compensation for breach.

The Court of Federal Claims agreed and dismissed the complaint.

The Federal Circuit reversed and remanded on the understanding that in light of the 1960 Act, the Government’s use of the property triggered a common-law trustee’s duty to act reasonably to preserve the property.

An obligation fairly interpreted as supporting a money damages claim.

We now affirm.

As the Government has argued, and as Justice Ginsburg explained a moment ago, the Indian Tucker Act gives the Court of Federal Claims lurisdiction over tribal claims but it creates no substantiate right enforceable against the Government by way of a claim from money damages.

The statute creates a right capable of supporting such a claim only if it can fairly be interpreted as mandating compensation by the Government for damage sustained.

The Act at issue in this case does permit a fair inference that the Government is subject to duties as a trustee and potential liability and damages for breach.

The statute expressly defines fiduciary relationship in providing that Fort Apache be held by the Government in trust for the Tribe, and it invest the United States with discretionary authority to use portions of the trust corpus.

Under the terms of this provision, the United States has enjoyed daily occupation of the trust corpus and so has obtained controlled over the property.

Although the 1960 Act does not expressly subject the Government to conservation duties, the fact that the property occupied by the United states is expressly subject to a trust supports a fair inference that an obligation to preserve the property improvements was incumbent on the Government as trustee.

The Court of Federal Claims does has jurisdiction to determine whether the Government should be liable in damages for breach.

Justice Thomas has filed a dissenting opinion in which the Chief Justice, Justice Scalia, and Justice Kennedy join.