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CANADIAN ST. REGIS BAND OF MOHAWK IND. v. NEW YORK

May 30, 2001

THE CANADIAN ST. REGIS BAND OF MOHAWK INDIANS, PLAINTIFF, THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, PLAINTIFF-INTERVENOR,
v.
THE STATE OF NEW YORK, GEORGE E. PATAKI, AS GOVERNOR OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK,[FN1] THE COUNTY OF ST. LAWRENCE, THE COUNTY OF FRANKLIN, THE VILLAGE OF MASSENA, THE TOWN OF MASSENA, THE TOWN OF BOMBAY, THE TOWN AND VILLAGE OF FORT COVINGTON, FARMERS NATIONAL BANK, N/K/A KEY BANK OF NORTHERN NEW YORK, N.A., NATIONWIDE MUTUAL INSURANCE CO., NIAGARA MOHAWK POWER CO., WALSH REALTY CORP. AND CANADIAN RAILWAYS, DEFENDANTS. THE CANADIAN ST. REGIS BAND OF MOHAWK INDIANS, PLAINTIFF, THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, PLAINTIFF-INTERVENOR, V. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, GEORGE E. PATAKI, AS GOVERNOR OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, ST. LAWRENCE SEAWAY DEVELOPMENT CORP., DAVID W. OBERLIN, NIAGARA MOHAWK POWER CO., AND POWER AUTHORITY OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, DEFENDANTS. THE ST. REGIS MOHAWK TRIBE, BY THE ST. REGIS MOHAWK TRIBAL COUNCIL AND THE PEOPLE OF THE LONGHOUSE AT AKWESASNE, BY THE MOHAWK NATION COUNCIL OF CHIEFS, PLAINTIFFS, THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, PLAINTIFF-INTERVENOR, V. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, GEORGE E. PATAKI AS GOVERNOR OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, COUNTY OF ST. LAWRENCE, COUNTY OF FRANKLIN, VILLAGE OF MASSENA, TOWN OF MASSENA, TOWN OF BOMBAY, TOWN AND VILLAGE OF FORT COVINGTON, KEY BANK OF NORTHERN NEW YORK, N.A., NATIONWIDE MUTUAL INSURANCE CO., NIAGARA MOHAWK POWER CO., CANADIAN NATIONAL RAILWAYS, POWER AUTHORITY OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK; ET AL. INDIVIDUALS, DEFENDANTS. WEST PAGE 171



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

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

In this protracted land claim litigation, plaintiff tribes, as self-described descendants of the Village of St. Regis, seek a declaration of ownership and the right to possess approximately 12,000 acres of land in northern New York, plus damages for almost 200 years of dispossession. The tribes and plaintiff-intervenor the United States principally contend that the subject land was reserved to the Indians of the Village of St. Regis in the Treaty with the Seven Nations, 7 Stat. 55 (1796), and that defendant State of New York's acquisition of the subject lands during a period from 1816 to 1845 contravened the Indian Nonintercourse Act, 25 U.S.C. § 177.*fn2 The tribes and the United States claim that title to the disputed property never properly passed to the State and, in turn, never properly passed to the other named defendants and members of the defendant class.

Defendants' instant Rule 12(b)(1) and (6) motions to dismiss variously assert that some or all of the claims alleged must be dismissed on a variety of grounds, including: (1) sovereign immunity, (2) lack of standing, (3) failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, (4) the equitable doctrine of laches, and (5) the doctrines of res judicata or collateral estoppel. For the reasons that follow, the motions to dismiss are granted to the extent that res judicata bars the United States and the St. Regis Tribe from asserting any Nonintercourse Act claims involving the 1824 conveyance. The motions to dismiss are denied in all other respects.

BACKGROUND

Familiarity with the considerable history of these consolidated land claim actions is assumed but, for the sake of clarity and to refresh the parties' and the court's recollection, a review of the relevant procedural history and facts of each case is in order.

I. 82-CV-783

On July 27, 1982, the Canadian St. Regis Band of Mohawk Indians, by their duly elected chief and council (Canadian Band or tribe),*fn3 commenced this class action seeking a declaration that the descendants of the Village of St. Regis own and are entitled to possess certain land reserved to them in the Treaty with the Seven Nations of Canada, 7 Stat. 55 (1796) (attached as Exh 1 to Dkt. No. 191). The claimed lands include a six-mile square tract located in northern New York State, as well as land on or near the Grasse River (see Amended Complaint, Dkt. No. 13, ¶¶ 24-25 & Exh A.). The amended complaint alleges that various appropriations of the subject land by defendant State of New York (the State) violate the Nonintercourse Act. The Canadian Band also asserts a claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that it was deprived of rights, privileges and immunities secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States because the claimed land was taken under color of law. In addition to recovering possession of the subject land, the Canadian Band seeks damages from the State for alleged waste, and against all defendants for alleged trespass and unlawful exclusion from the land. Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(b)(1)(B), the court certified a defendant class in this action.*fn4

II. 82-CV-1114

Several months after filing 82-CV-783, the Canadian Band brought this action*fn5 against the State defendants, Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation and the New York Power Authority (the NYPA), among others,*fn6 seeking a declaration that it owns and is entitled to possess certain islands located in the St. Lawrence River. Specifically, the Canadian Band seeks to recover possession of the Croil Islands and Barnhart Island (see Amended Complaint, Dkt. No. 5, ¶¶ 21-23 and Prayer for Relief, ¶ 3), in addition to compensation for those submerged lands which were formerly part of Croil Island (see id. ¶ 24, Prayer for Relief, ¶ 6).*fn7 The amended complaint asserts that the State's acquisition of the islands violated the Indian Nonintercourse Act and the Treaty of Ghent, 8 Stat. 218 (1814). The Canadian Band also asserts a § 1983 claim, alleging illegal deprivation of its rights under the United States Constitution, and a Fifth Amendment takings claim against the NYPA, the current possessor of the islands. In addition to the above stated relief, the Canadian Band seeks trespass damages for the alleged period of dispossession.

III. 89-CV-829

On June 30, 1989, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council (the St. Regis Tribe or tribe), and the People of the Longhouse at Akwesasne, by the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs (the Longhouse or tribe), commenced this defendant class action against the State and Municipal defendants, the NYPA and various individuals. Like the Canadian Band, the St. Regis Tribe and Longhouse land claims are predicated on violations of the Nonintercourse Act and the Treaty of Ghent, among others. The complaint seeks a declaration pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2201 declaring that the conveyances of land reserved in the Treaty of 1796, and the conveyances with respect to Croil, Barnhart and Long Sault Islands, among others, are null and void with no legal effect.

In addition, the St. Regis Tribe and the Longhouse claim a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the subject lands were taken under color of law, depriving them of the rights, privileges and immunities secured by the United States Constitution and the various treaties. The complaint also seeks injunctive relief ejecting defendants from the above claimed lands, and damages for (1) fair market rental value, (2) the value of minerals and resources, and (3) waste, pollution and flooding.

IV. Consolidation

In July 1989, the Canadian Band moved pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 42(a) to consolidate 82-CV-783 and 82-CV-1114 with the St. Regis Tribe's and Longhouse's then-newly filed action, 89-CV-829. In October of that same year, the State, the NYPA and the Municipal defendants filed pre-answer motions to dismiss in all three of these actions — 82-CV-783, 82-CV-1114 and 89-CV-829. Thereafter, in August 1991, the court consolidated the three actions. Following consolidation, the court granted a series of stays in order to facilitate ongoing negotiations between the parties. Negotiations broke down, however, and the stay was lifted in September 1996.

In November 1996, by joint motion, the above defendants renoticed their respective motions to dismiss the complaints in all three actions, supplementing the previously filed papers supporting the motions. Thereafter, at the request of the parties, the court stayed the litigation pending the Supreme Court's decision in Coeur d'Alene Tribe of Idaho v. State of Idaho, 42 F.3d 1244 (9th Cir. 1994), cert. granted, 517 U.S. 1132, 116 S.Ct. 1415, 134 L.Ed.2d 541 (1996). As a result of the stay, defendants withdrew their motions to dismiss.

In August 1997, after the Supreme Court rendered its decision in Coeur d'Alene, 521 U.S. 261, 117 S.Ct. 2028, 138 L.Ed.2d 438 (1997), this court directed the refiling of any motions to dismiss. At the request of the parties, the court again issued a series of stays to permit the continuation of settlement negotiations. Negotiations failed in May 1998, and two months later defendants again renoticed their respective motions to dismiss.

V. Intervention

On August 5, 1998, the United States moved pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 24 to intervene as of right in all three actions as a plaintiff. Although the Municipal defendants took no position on the intervention motion, they reserved the right to raise issues of standing relating to the Canadian Band and the Longhouse. The State defendants opposed the motion and the NYPA apparently took no position. In October 1998, the court granted the motion to intervene (see Dkt. No. 166).

The United States' complaint in intervention, filed in December 1998, alleges that the claimed land and islands were acquired in violation of the Indian Nonintercourse Act and the 1796 Treaty with the Seven Nations of Canada. The complaint seeks a declaration that the Indians of the Village of St. Regis hold the right of possession to the subject lands and islands, and damages and other monetary relief for the Indians of the Village of St. Regis.

After agreeing that the previously filed motions to dismiss were applicable to the United States' complaint in intervention, the court directed defendants to resubmit their motions to dismiss and set a new briefing schedule. In July 1999, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) and (6), the State, the NYPA and the Municipal defendants filed the instant motions to dismiss all the complaints. The Canadian Band, St. Regis Tribe, Longhouse and the United States oppose the motions. Oral argument was heard in September 1999.

FACTS

Akwesasne is the Mohawk name for the area on or near the St. Regis Reservation — a reservation that covers areas located in both the United States and Canada. The St. Regis Tribe is an federally recognized tribe whose members reside primarily on the portion of the St. Regis Reservation located in Franklin County, New York (see Complaint (89-CV-829), Dkt. No. 1, ¶ 5). The St. Regis Mohawk Council governs the St. Regis Tribe.

The Longhouse describes itself as "`an Indian nation or tribe of Indians' within the meaning of the [Nonintercourse Act]" (id. ¶ 6). The Longhouse principally reside on the portion of the St. Regis Reservation located in both Franklin County and the Canadian Province of Ontario. The Longhouse is part of the Mohawk Nation and is governed by the Mohawk Council of Chiefs.

The Canadian Band describes itself as "an Indian tribe organized under the laws of Canada . . . [whose] members comprise the majority of the decendants [sic] of the Indians of the Village of St. Regis" (see Amended Complaint (82-CV-783), Dkt. No. 13, ¶ 4). The Canadian Band resides on the Canadian side of the St. Regis Reservation and is governed by the Canadian St. Regis Band Council (now known as the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne).

Put simply, the Canadian Band, the St. Regis Tribe and the Longhouse all claim to be direct descendants of "the Indians of the Village of St. Regis," and assert a single and undivided interest in the subject land and islands. In other words, the three tribes, with their three different governments, contend that they all sprang from the Indians of the Village of St. Regis. Accordingly, the three tribes assert a continuous ownership and occupation of the subject land and islands since before 1796 and, since that time, a continuous existence as one people sharing a common heritage and social, linguistic, legal, religious and other community ties.

I. The Original Reservation Land Claim

After the Revolutionary War, member tribes of the Seven Nations of Canada — including the Mohawk villages of Kahnawake and Akwesasne or St. Regis — claimed land located north and south of the St. Lawrence River. The Seven Nations and New York State subsequently negotiated the Treaty with the Seven Nations of Canada, 7 Stat. 55 (1796), wherein the Seven Nations agreed to cede, release and quit claim all rights to land in the State of New York in exchange for specified compensation, with the exception of the reservation of certain lands in New York State for the benefit of the Indians of the Village of St. Regis. Specifically the 1796 Treaty states:

That the tract equal to six miles square, reserved in the sale made by the commissioners of the land-office of the said state, to Alexander Macomb, to be applied to the use of the Indians of the village of St. Regis, shall remain so reserved. . . .
[T]here shall [also] be reserved, to be applied to the use of the Indians of the said village of St. Regis, in like manner as the said tract is to remain reserved, a tract of one mile square, at each of the [mills located on the Salmon and Grass Rivers], and the meadows on both sides of the said Grass river from the said mill thereon, to its confluence with the river St. Lawrence. . . .
  Treaty with the Seven Nations of Canada, 7 Stat. 55 (1796). It is undisputed that this treaty complied with the Nonintercourse Act.

The above reserved land thus constituted the "original" portion of the St. Regis Reservation located in the State of New York. The current St. Regis Reservation comprises approximately 14,460 acres of the original reservation and is not at issue in these consolidated actions. It is the remainder of the original reservation — reduced by the State through a series of allegedly illegal agreements and transactions — that is the subject of 82-CV-783 and 89-CV-829.

The first claim for relief in the Canadian Band's amended complaint, the St. Regis Tribe and the Longhouse's complaint, and the United States' complaint in intervention, alleges that between 1816 and 1845, the State acquired title and interest to portions of the original reservation by entering into several unlawful agreements with persons purporting to represent the St. Regis Indians (see Amended Complaint (82-CV-783), Dkt. No. 13, ¶ 49; Complaint (89-CV-829), Dkt. No. 1, ¶ 21; Complaint in Intervention, Dkt. No. 167, ¶ 17). Specifically, the three tribes and the United States allege the following seven transactions contravene the Indian Nonintercourse Act and are thus void: (1) a March 15, 1816 "treaty" whereby the State purchased 5,640 acres of the original reservation, (2) a February 20, 1818 "treaty" whereby the State purchased 2,000 additional acres of the original reservation, (3) a March 16, 1824 "treaty" whereby the State purchased the square mile tract on the Grass River consisting of 640 acres of the original reservation, (4) a June 12, 1824 "treaty" whereby the State purchased an additional 1,000 acres of the original reservation, (5) a December 24, 1824 conveyance to the State of 144 acres of the original reservation, with such conveyance purportedly confirmed by the New York Legislature on April 20, 1825, (6) a September 23, 1825 "treaty" whereby the State purchased 840 acres of the original reservation, and (7) a July 21, 1845 "treaty" whereby the State purchased the meadows on the Grass River consisting of 210.04 acres of the original reservation (see id. ¶¶ 50-59; id. ¶ 21A-G; id. ¶ 17A-G). The tribes and the United States claim that defendants and/or their predecessors in interest have possessed the above lands without lawful authority at various times from 1816 to 1845 until the present.

Additionally, the St. Regis Tribe, the Longhouse and the United States allege that defendants and members of the defendant class encroached upon and now wrongfully possesses other lands not mentioned in the above transactions. These additional lands include the surface and right of way of New York State Route 37 and certain portions of the Town of Bombay. The St. Regis Tribe, the Longhouse and the United States assert that these additional lands are part of the original reservation and were taken in violation of the Indian Nonintercourse Act (see Complaint (89-CV-829), Dkt. No. 1, ¶¶ 29-31; Complaint in Intervention, Dkt. No. 167, ¶ 18). The complaint and complaint in intervention also allege that original reservation land was taken in contravention of the Nonintercourse Act when the New York State Legislature passed an Act on April 5, 1810 declaring portions of the Racquette River and St. Regis River in the County of St. Lawrence to be public highways (see id. ¶¶ 33-34; id. ¶ 19).

II. The Islands Claim

From 1783 to 1814, the Indians of the Village of St. Regis continued to exhibit ownership of the islands and, in fact, leased portions of the islands to others. The War of 1812 ended with the United States and Great Britain signing the Treaty of Ghent, 8 Stat. 218 (1814). Under that treaty, the ambiguous boundary between the United States and Canada was to be resolved by two commissioners, one British and one American. The treaty also provided:

[I]n case any of the islands mentioned in any of the proceeding articles which were in the possession of one of the parties prior to the commencement of the present war between the two countries, should, by decision [of the commissioners] fall within the dominions of the other party, all grants of land made previous to the commencement of the war, by the party having such possession, shall be valid as if such island or islands had, by such decision or decisions, been adjudged to be within the dominions of the party having had such possession.

8 Stat. 218, 222. Thus, the rights of the Indians of the Village of St. Regis were not to be affected by any resettling of the boundaries. On June 18, 1822, the commissioners determined that the subject islands belonged to the United States. See 8 U.S. Stat. 274.

After that determination, the State, apparently ignoring the tribe's occupation and use of the subject land, issued letters of patent conveying title of the islands to various third parties. In 1851, the Commissioners of the Land Office submitted a report to the State Legislature indicating that if the subject islands were in the possession of the United States before the Treaty of Ghent, then the State had no right to make any land grants concerning the islands, and those grants unfairly deprived the St. Regis Tribe of rents they had been collecting on the land. Subsequently, the Legislature passed an act in 1856 granting the St. Regis Tribe $5,960. The amount represented the annual rents the tribe would have collected from 1822 to 1856, plus six percent interest, or alternatively the sum which in 1822 would have extinguished the St. Regis Tribe's title to the islands.

Eventually, the subject islands were acquired by the NYPA, the current possessor of the land. It is the series of conveyances by the State of New York to various individuals, including the NYPA, which allegedly contravene both the Indian Nonintercourse Act and the Treaty of Ghent, thus rendering those transactions null and void with no legal effect (see Amended Complaint (82-CV-1114), Dkt. No. 5, ΒΆΒΆ 43-50; ...


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