Supreme Court Rules against Tohono O'odham Nation's Lawsuit in Court of Federal Claims on Ground that Nation had Previously Filed a Substantially Similar Suit in another Court

The Tohono O’odham Nation (Nation) filed two suits alleging that federal officials who were managing the Nation’s trust lands had violated the federal fiduciary duty to the Nation by, for example, not providing an accurate accounting; engaging in self-dealing; failing to use reasonable skill in investing trust assets; etc. The first suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and sought an accounting of the Nation’s trust assets, and some money damages. The next day the Nation filed a second suit, this time in the Court of Federal Claims (CFC), claiming money damages for mismanaging the trust assets.

On April 26, 2011, the Supreme Court held that the CFC could not take jurisdiction of the case against the U.S. filed in that court, because of an Act of Congress, dating back to 1868 and repeatedly renewed by subsequent Congresses. That Act states the CFC cannot take jurisdiction of a case that is essentially the same claim as one which is pending in some other court. 28 U.S.C. § 1500.

Most of the decision consists of a discussion of the question whether the restriction applies to CFC suits with substantially the same operative facts as the case in the other court, and nothing more, or whether the second claim may proceed in the CFC if the suits differ not as to the facts alleged but as to the relief available. The CFC generally has jurisdiction of claims for money damages against the United States, while the District Court may award equitable relief (such as injunction) in appropriate circumstances, which the CFC may not. The District Court may award damages, but not more than $10,000, while the CFC has no such limitation. After lengthy analysis the majority of the Supreme Court concluded that if the operative facts in the two cases are the same, the CFC suit must be dismissed, even if it claims an entirely different form of relief. This effectively overrules a position taken by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit more than 50 years ago, and upheld several times since by that court.

Justices Sotomayor and Breyer agreed with the majority opinion that this CFC suit was prohibited, because in it the Nation claimed some of the same relief (money damages) as it did in the other case. But the majority of the Court went on to declare that the CFC case would have been disallowed even if the two cases had claimed totally different forms of relief. With that ruling the two Justices did not agree. Justice Ginsburg dissented on the ground that the Court should have allowed the Nation to correct the partial overlap in the claims for relief by amending its complaint in the Claims Court.

While this case is an important one for the Tohono O’odham Nation, it turns entirely on procedural issues that we do not believe involve any significant principles of federal Indian law, and in particular it does not disturb the Mitchell case, U.S. v. Mitchell, 463 U.S. 207 (1983).