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CAYUGA INDIAN NATION OF NEW YORK v. CUOMO

August 13, 1991

THE CAYUGA INDIAN NATION OF NEW YORK, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS, AND THE SENECA-CAYUGA TRIBE OF OKLAHOMA, PLAINTIFF-INTERVENOR,
v.
MARIO M. CUOMO, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: McCURN, Chief Judge.

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

BACKGROUND

This action was commenced in November, 1980 by the Cayuga Indian Nation of New York. On November 9, 1981, this court granted the motion brought by the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma to intervene in this action. The plaintiffs (or the "Cayugas") seek a declaration from this court concerning their current ownership of and right to possess a tract of land in central New York State containing approximately 64,000 acres ("the subject land"), an award of fair rental value for the almost two hundred years during which they have been out of possession of the subject land, and other monetary and protective relief. This court already has issued several decisions concerning the present action. In Cayuga Indian Nation of New York, et al. v. Cuomo, et al., 565 F. Supp. 1297 (N.D.N.Y. 1983) ("Cayuga I"), this court denied the defendants' motion to dismiss plaintiffs' complaint, and held that the plaintiffs can present evidence in support of their claims. Cayuga I, 565 F. Supp. at 1330. In Cayuga Indian Nation of New York, et al. v. Cuomo, et al., 667 F. Supp. 938 (N.D.N.Y. 1987) ("Cayuga II"), this court denied both parties' motions for summary judgment on plaintiffs' claims. Cayuga II, 667 F. Supp. at 949. In Cayuga Indian Nation of New York, et al. v. Cuomo, et al., 730 F. Supp. 485 (N.D.N.Y. 1990) ("Cayuga III"), the court granted the plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment, and held that agreements entered into in the years 1795 and 1807 between the plaintiffs and New York State, wherein the plaintiffs purportedly conveyed to the State of New York the plaintiffs' interest in the subject land, were invalid. Cayuga III, 730 F. Supp. at 493. In Cayuga Indian Nation of New York, et al. v. Cuomo, et al., 758 F. Supp. 107 (N.D.N.Y. 1991) ("Cayuga IV"), this court determined that the Cayugas obtained recognized title in the subject land by way of the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, and that therefore the defendants' defense of abandonment was legally insufficient to defeat plaintiffs' claims. Cayuga IV, 758 F. Supp. at 118. Most recently, the court, in Cayuga Indian Nation of New York, et al. v. Cuomo, et al., 762 F. Supp. 30 (N.D.N.Y. 1991) ("Cayuga V"), granted the motion to dismiss plaintiffs' complaint brought by defendant Consolidated Rail Corporation ("Conrail") as against that defendant.*fn1

By the present motion, the plaintiffs seek an order from this court declaring that the defendants are liable to the plaintiffs, and that any and all defenses of the defendants, including their affirmative defense of laches, are insufficient as a matter of law to avoid liability on plaintiffs' claims. The defendants argue that the present action is barred by the equitable doctrine of laches.

DISCUSSION

The Cayugas claim that "this case was timely filed within the express statutory and regulatory framework established by Congress in 1982 to govern Indian land claims. See 2[8] U.S.C. § 2415; 48 Fed. Reg. 13698, 13920 (March 31, 1983)."*fn3 They argue that the language of 28 U.S.C. § 2415, the holding of the Supreme Court in County of Oneida v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, 470 U.S. 226, 105 S.Ct. 1245, 84 L.Ed.2d 169 (1985), reh'g denied 471 U.S. 1062, 105 S.Ct. 2173, 85 L.Ed.2d 491 (1985) ("County of Oneida"), as well as the second circuit's decision in Oneida Indian Nation of New York v. Oneida County, 719 F.2d 525 (2d Cir. 1983) ("Oneida Indian Nation of New York II") all support their contention that the defense of laches is unavailable in Indian land claim cases.*fn4 Additionally, they contend that Justice Stevens' dissent in County of Oneida, as well as Judge Newman's statement in Oneida Indian Nation of New York v. State of New York, 860 F.2d 1145 (2d Cir. 1988) ("Oneida Indian Nation of New York III"), lend further credence to their argument that laches is not a legally sufficient defense to their claims. Accordingly, a review of 28 U.S.C. § 2415, its legislative history, and the various decisions relied upon by both parties in support of their respective positions is in order.

28 U.S.C. § 2415(c) provides that there is no time limitation on claims which seek "to establish the title to, or right of possession of, real or personal property." Sections 2415(a) and (b) of this Title provide that actions brought by the United States on behalf of an Indian tribe which sounded in contract or tort, sought money damages, and accrued prior to July, 1966 were timely so long as such actions were commenced prior to December 31, 1982. See, e.g., Oneida Indian Nation of New York II, 719 F.2d at 538. The 1982 amendments to this statute also imposed a specific statute of limitations concerning certain tort and contract claims brought by Indian tribes themselves. County of Oneida, 470 U.S. at 242-43, 105 S.Ct. at 1256, 84 L.Ed.2d 169.

In Oneida Indian Nation of New York II, the second circuit was confronted by a land claim brought by the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, the Oneida Indian Nation of Wisconsin and the Oneida of the Thames Band Council (collectively referred to as the "Oneidas"). There, as here, the court was confronted by the argument that the claims of the Indian tribes were time-barred because the Oneidas' lawsuit was filed some 175 years after their cause of action had accrued. In finding this argument to be without merit, the court, in discussing the minimum amount of time which Indian tribes are to be afforded in the filing of land claims, concluded that:

    "[A]t the very least, suits by tribes should be
  held timely if such suits would have been timely if
  brought by the United States." (quoting Oneida
  Indian Nation of New York v. New York,
  691 F.2d 1070, 1084 (2d Cir. 1982) ("Oneida Indian Nation of
  New York I")).

Oneida Indian Nation of New York II, 719 F.2d at 538. Since the Oneidas' action would have been timely had the same been brought by the United States on the plaintiffs' behalf pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2415, the court concluded that the Oneidas' action was timely. Id. While the Oneidas were apparently both impoverished and illiterate, see Oneida Indian Nation of New York v. County of Cayuga, 434 F. Supp. 527, 535-37 (N.D.N.Y. 1977), the second circuit did not limit its holding to like Indian tribes. Nor did it claim, as the defendants would have this court hold, that its ruling was only applicable to non-litigious tribes, or tribes that did not seek to enforce their perceived right to compensation under their "treaties" with the State. In fact, to view the second circuit's ruling in Oneida Indian Nation of New York II to stand for this proposition would be, in this court's opinion, clearly erroneous. Under 28 U.S.C. § 2415, the United States was entitled to bring an action seeking money damages on behalf of any Indian tribe until December 31, 1982, notwithstanding such tribe's education, literacy or litigiousness. Id. As the second circuit noted, "[i]t would be anomalous to allow the trustee to sue under more favorable conditions tha[n] those afforded the tribes themselves." Oneida Indian Nation of New York II, 719 F.2d at 538 (quoting Oneida Indian Nation of New York I, 691 F.2d at 1083-84).

This court holds that the second circuit's decision in Oneida Indian Nation of New York II stands for the proposition that claims brought by Indian tribes in general, including the plaintiffs herein, should be held by courts to be timely, and therefore not barred by laches, if, at the very least, such a suit would have been timely if the same had been brought by the United States.*fn5

The Supreme Court, in affirming in part and reversing in part the second circuit's holding in Oneida Indian Nation of New York II, discussed, inter alia, the legislative history surrounding 28 U.S.C. § 2415. In County of Oneida, the Supreme Court held that:

    The legislative history of the 1972, 1977, and 1980
  amendments [to 28 U.S.C. § 2415] demonstrates that
  Congress did not intend § 2415 to apply to suits
  brought by the Indians themselves, and that it
  assumed that the Indians' right to sue ...

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