Ninth Circuit Allows Suit to Proceed against Navajo Nation Officials under Application of Ex parte Young Doctrine

On March 15, 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that a suit against Navajo Nation (“Nation”) officials alleging violations of federal law could proceed under the Ex parte Young doctrine (a 1908 Supreme Court case), notwithstanding the immunity of the Nation. Salt River Project Agr. Imp. & Power Dist. v. Lee. In this case, non-Indians operating a power plant on the Navajo Reservation sued tribal officials (not the Nation) in federal court, seeking a ruling that the Nation did not have regulatory authority over plaintiffs’ employees, because that authority was waived in the power plant lease with the Nation. The district court ordered the case dismissed on the grounds of sovereign immunity, but the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the Nation was not a necessary party to the case, and that the suit could proceed under the
Ex parte Young doctrine.

In holding that the case could proceed without the Nation being made a party, the court held that an injunction could be issued against the Nation’s officials in their official capacity, and would therefore bind their successors as well, and that the interests of the Nation would be protected because the tribal officials’ interests were aligned with those of the Nation. The court also noted that the tribal officials’ theory regarding indispensability of the Nation in an Ex parte Young suit would render the Young doctrine meaningless, because any suit under Young of necessity implicates the interests of the government at issue.

After holding that the Nation was not a necessary party to the suit, the court turned to the application of the Young doctrine. The Ninth Circuit stated the rule of Ex parte Young as “[permitting] actions for prospective non-monetary relief against state or tribal officials in their official capacity to enjoin them from violating federal law, without the presence of the immune State or tribe.” The court held that Ex parte Young applied to the allegations that the Nation officials had acted beyond the scope of their authority as defined by federal common law, on the theory that Young applied to violations of federal common law as well as statutory law.