On January 25, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin v. United States. In a unanimous decision authored by Justice Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court upheld the D.C. Circuit’s ruling that the statute of limitations on the Tribe’s 1996-1998 contract support cost claims against the Indian Health Service (IHS) was not equitably tolled, and therefore the Tribe’s claims were filed too late under the Indian Self-Determination Act and the Contract Disputes Act (ISDEAA).
The case has a complicated factual background, which is only briefly summarized here. Before the federal government’s liability for full payment of contract support costs under the ISDEAA had been clearly established by the courts, the Menominee Tribe chose to rely on class action litigation filed against the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service to advance its contract support cost claims against those agencies. The class action litigation against the Bureau of Indian Affairs was successfully certified, despite the federal government’s objection that many of the tribal class members (including Menominee) had not filed individual administrative claims, as required by the Contract Disputes Act. The case proceeded as a class action, and resulted in a series of settlement payments to class members.
Later, class certification in the class action against the Indian Health Service was denied, and the Tribe realized that it would most likely have to pursue its claims by filing them individually with the agency. However, the Tribe believed that the six-year statute of limitations for filing its claims had been tolled (suspended) during the pendency of the proposed class action, under a legal doctrine known as “class action tolling.” It was only years later, and well after the Tribe had filed its claims in 2005 that the courts determined the Tribe was not eligible for class action tolling because it should have filed its individual claims first in order to participate in the class action. This ruling was contrary to the court’s decisions and the Tribe’s experience in the parallel class action against the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in which all short-funded tribes were allowed to participate regardless of whether they had filed individual claims at an earlier date or not.
The Tribe then argued that the statute of limitations on its claims should be equitably tolled in light of the extraordinary facts of the Tribe’s case and its reasonable reliance on the class action litigation. Equitable relief is generally designed to allow courts to make exceptions to strict legal rules in the interest of fairness, though the standard for equitable tolling is stringent: parties seeking equitable tolling must establish (1) that they were reasonably diligent in pursuing their claims and (2) that some extraordinary circumstance stood in the way of timely filing.
In a case involving facts very similar to the Tribe’s, the Federal Circuit ruled that the Arctic Slope Native Association met the standard for equitable tolling. The Federal Circuit in that case found that the backdrop of the long-running contract support cost litigation against the federal government and the existence of the prior, identical class action against the Bureau of Indian Affairs constituted extraordinary circumstances, and that in light of those circumstances the Arctic Slope Native Association reasonably and diligently relied on the class action litigation, thus excusing its tardy filing of administrative claims. Finally, the Federal Circuit held that the special trust relationship between the federal government and Indian tribes weighed in favor of tolling the statute of limitations so that the claims could proceed.
The D.C. Circuit disagreed with the Federal Circuit’s analysis, and ruled against the Menominee Tribe. In its decision, the Supreme Court sided with the D.C. Circuit. First, the Court held that the two prongs of the equitable tolling test—diligence and extraordinary circumstances—are two distinct elements that must be satisfied separately, not factors to be weighed with or against each other. Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that the D.C. Circuit did not err in failing to consider the Tribe’s diligence once it determined that there were no extraordinary circumstances in the Tribe’s case. Second, the Court disagreed with the Tribe’s argument the D.C. Circuit interpreted the “extraordinary circumstances” requirement too strictly in requiring the Tribe to show some “external obstacle” that made it impossible to file the claims at an earlier time. The Supreme Court determined that the D.C. Circuit’s formulation of the test—which differed substantially from the Federal Circuit’s more holistic approach—correctly reflected the requirement that a litigant seeking equitable tolling show that some extraordinary circumstance “stood in his way” and was “outside of his control.” The Court held that the circumstances faced by the Tribe did not meet this standard because the Tribe’s reliance on the Ramah and Cherokee Nation class action lawsuits in deciding whether and when to file individual administrative claims was not something beyond the Tribe’s control. The Supreme Court did not address the Federal Circuit’s reasoning, which led to a different result.
Finally, the Supreme Court declined to consider the trust relationship between the federal government and the Tribe as a special factor in the case. Though the Court acknowledged the general trust relationship, it held that the general relationship could not overcome the specific statutory requirement in the Indian Self-Determination Act and the Contract Disputes Act that contract claims must be filed within six years of accrual.
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