GM 13-081

District Court Declines to Address Individual FMLA Claim against Inter-Tribal Council, Dismisses Case on Sovereign Immunity Grounds

Carsten v. Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada arose out of a claim against the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada (ITCN) by an employee who alleged that the ITCN violated the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) by denying her request for time off due to a serious medical issue and thereafter terminating her employment. The United States District Court for the District of Nevada declined to address the FMLA issue and held that because the ITCN was entitled to sovereign immunity, the Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the case.

The ITCN is a non-profit organization made up of 26 federally recognized Nevada tribes, and it is governed by an executive board composed of tribal leaders from each of the 26 tribes. The ITCN manages several federal and state funded programs on behalf of the member tribes, including the program for which the plaintiff worked. The plaintiff alleged in her complaint that she had a serious medical condition that made her eligible for time off under the FMLA. She requested leave from the ITCN’s personnel director, but her request was ultimately denied by the ITCN’s executive director. The ITCN argued that the plaintiff could not sue the ITCN because her suit was barred by sovereign immunity, and the Nevada District Court agreed with ITCN.

In so holding, the Court relied in part on Pink v. Modoc Indian Health Project, 157 F.3d 1185, 1188 (9th Cir. 1998), in which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a non-profit inter-tribal entity, operating off-reservation, served as an arm of its member tribes. The Court determined that the ITCN was similarly an arm of its member tribes and entitled to sovereign immunity. The Court also found that the other two defendants — who were council members of the ITCN, sued in their official capacity and within the scope of their authority — were entitled to immunity from suit as well. The Court did not reach the issue of whether the FMLA applies to the ITCN or, for that matter, to Indian tribes generally, nor was it confronted with the facts necessary to consider the application of the FMLA if enforcement were sought by the federal government.

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