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Oneida Indian Nation of New York v. State

May 21, 2007



This action is brought by three Oneida tribal groups - the Oneida Indian Nation of New York ("New York Oneidas"), the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, and the Oneida of the Thames (collectively, the "Oneidas" or "Plaintiffs"). Plaintiffs seek redress for allegedly unlawful transfers of approximately 250,000 acres of land in central New York. The United States intervened as a plaintiff in this action in March, 1998. Presently before the Court is a Motion for summary judgment submitted on behalf of defendants, the State of New York (the "State") and the Counties of Oneida and Madison (the "Counties") (collectively, "Defendants"). See Defts' Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 582).

I. Historical Background

At the time of the American Revolution, the Oneida Indian Nation, of which Plaintiffs are direct descendants, was one of the six nations of the Iroquois, or Haudenosaunee, Confederation, which was then the most powerful Indian tribe in the Northeast. County of Oneida v. Oneida Indian Nation of N.Y., 470 U.S. 226, 230 (1985) ("Oneida II"). The Oneidas actively aided the colonists during the Revolution, even while most of the Iroquois sided with the British. Id. at 231. In recognition of this vital aid, the United States guaranteed certain lands to the Oneidas. Id. The 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua was one of a series of treaties in which "the National Government promised that the Oneidas would be secure in the possession of the lands on which they settled." Id.

In 1788, the Oneidas ceded most of their six (6) million acre homeland to the State, reserving only 300,000 acres for themselves. Joseph Singer, Nine-Tenths of the Law: Title Possession & Sacred Obligation, 38 Conn. L. Rev. 605, 612 (2006). Commentators note that while the Oneidas made the decision to proceed with the transfer of their aboriginal lands, they likely did so under great duress. Id. The Oneidas bring this action to vindicate their tribal rights in approximately 250,000 acres of land located generally in the Counties; this land comprises a small fraction of their original lands and was specifically guaranteed to the Oneidas "use and cultivation" by the Treaty of Canandaigua. See id; Amended Complaint (Dkt. No. 582 , Attach. 6, Ex. A) at ¶ 1; Plntfs' Stat. of Mat. Facts (Dkt. No. 599, Attach. 2) at ¶ 1.

Plaintiffs allege that the claimed land was wrongfully acquired or transferred from them by the State through a series of transactions in violation of the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act, codified as 25 U.S.C. § 177 (the "Nonintercourse Act"), the Treaty of Canandaigua, and federal common law. Id. This action and other related Indian land claims have a long and tortured procedural history; familiarity with the history and the detailed factual record in this case is presumed.*fn1

Plaintiffs are the heirs and political successors to the aboriginal Oneida Indian Nation that occupied the claimed land from time immemorial. Id. at ¶ 11. Plaintiffs are also the heirs to a long and proud history; a history that is filled with a number of betrayals. As part of that history, Plaintiffs inherited the legal claim to right the historic wrongs born of actions that can only be seen as grave injustices. The courts have held themselves open to Plaintiffs' land claims for generations, however, recent legal developments raise the possibility that this Court might be compelled to close its doors now. The Court does not believe that the higher courts intended to or have barred Plaintiffs from receiving any relief; to do so would deny the Oneidas the right to seek redress for long-suffered wrongs. For the reasons discussed below, the Court grants Defendants' Motion for summary judgment in part and denies the Motion in part.

II. Background Related to Present Motion

Defendants argue that recent decisions by the United States Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit mandate dismissal of the claims asserted by the Oneidas (and the United States on their behalf) in the instant case. Defts' Mem. of Law (Dkt. No. 582, Attach. 3) at 2-3. In March, 2005, the Supreme Court issued its decision in City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, 544 U.S. 197 (2005). In Sherrill, the Supreme Court held that equitable principles barred the New York Oneidas from reasserting tribal sovereignty over land they had purchased that was within the boundaries of the Oneidas' former reservation area. Id. Following the Sherrill decision, the Second Circuit held in Cayuga Indian Nation of New York v. Pataki, 413 F.3d 266 (2d Cir. 2005), cert. denied, 126 S.Ct. 2021, 2022 (2006), that disruptive possessory land claims are subject to the equitable doctrines, specifically laches, applied in Sherrill. Id. at 275. Defendants assert that the heart of Plaintiffs' case is the claim that they have a current possessory interest in the claim area that dates back to time immemorial, which was recognized by the United States in the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, and that has never been extinguished. Defts' Mem. of Law (Dkt. No. 582, Attach. 3) at 16. Accordingly, Defendants suggest that Plaintiffs' claims are foreclosed by Sherrill and Cayuga and must be dismissed. Plaintiffs respond that: (1) Defendants have ignored the Oneidas' non-possessory claim to compel the State of New York to pay fair compensation for the Oneidas' land based on its value when the State acquired it; and (2) their trespass damages claims cannot be barred by laches without further discovery of facts related to the delay in bringing the claims and the prejudice that may result from those claims. Plntfs' Mem. of Law (Dkt. No. 599, Attach. 1) at 1-2.

III. Discussion

A. Standard of Review

Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that summary judgment is proper when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Courts applying this standard must "resolve all ambiguities, and credit all factual inferences that could rationally be drawn, in favor of the party opposing summary judgment." Brown v. Henderson, 257 F.3d 246, 251 (2d Cir. 2001) (quoting Cifra v. Gen. Elec. Co., 252 F.3d 205, 216 (2d Cir. 2001)).

Once the moving party meets its initial burden by demonstrating that no material fact exists for trial, the non-movant "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986) (citations omitted). The non-movant "must come forth with evidence sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to find in her favor." Brown, 257 F.3d at 251 (citation omitted). Bald assertions or conjecture unsupported by evidence are insufficient to overcome a motion for summary judgment. Carey v. Crescenzi, 923 F.2d 18, 21 (2d Cir. 1991); W. World Ins. Co. v. Stack Oil, Inc., 922 F.2d 118, 121 (2d Cir. 1990).

B. Laches Bar Plaintiffs' Possessory Land Claims

1. Reconsideration of Defendants' Laches Defense

Defendants assert that the Cayuga decision, which dismissed land claims brought by the Cayuga Nation, means that the Second Circuit has already determined that the very claims at issue in this case are barred by laches. Defts' Mem. of Law (Dkt. No. 582, Attach. 3) at 19. Relying on Supreme Court and Second Circuit precedent, this Court struck Defendants' laches defense in its March, 2002 Memorandum-Decision and Order. Oneida 2002, 194 F. Supp. 2d at 124. In their Memorandum of Law, Defendants urge the Court to reconsider its prior decision regarding the laches defense. Defts' Mem. of Law (Dkt. No. 582, Attach. 3) at 7. As discussed below, in light of the Cayuga and Sherrill decisions, the Court now holds that Defendants can assert a laches defense against Plaintiffs' possessory land claims.

Courts retain the inherent authority to modify or adjust all interlocutory orders prior to the entry of a final judgment. Parmar v. Jeetish Imports, Inc., 180 F.3d 401, 402 (2d Cir. 1999) (citing FED. R. CIV. P. 54(b); United States v. LoRusso, 695 F.2d 45, 53 (2d Cir. 1982)). Typically, on a motion by a party, a court may justifiably reconsider its previous ruling when there is an intervening change in the controlling law. Delaney v. Selsky, 899 F. Supp. 923, 925 (N.D.N.Y. 1995) (McAvoy, C.J.) (citing Doe v. New York City Dep't of Soc. Servs., 709 F.2d 782, 789 (2d Cir. 1983)). However, there must be more that simply "mere doubt" regarding the effect of an apparent change in the controlling law in order to open a matter for full reconsideration. See Doe, 709 F.2d at 790 n.9.

This Court's prior Order reviewed the case law and found that "[c]courts analyzing Indian land claim actions have consistently rejected the use of delay-based defenses." Oneida 2002, 194 F. Supp. 2d at 123 (citing Oneida Indian Nation of New York v. New York, 691 F.2d 1070, 1084, 1097 (2d Cir. 1982) (rejecting the validity of delay-based defenses, specifically laches, in Indian land claim action)). In Cayuga, the Second Circuit reasoned, based on the Sherrill decision, that equitable defenses, including laches, can be applied to viable possessory land claims that were filed within the applicable statute of limitation. See Cayuga, 413 F.3d at 273-74. Furthermore, the Second Circuit explicitly stated, "if the Cayugas filed this complaint today, exactly as worded, a District Court would be required to find the claim subject to the defense of laches under Sherrill and could dismiss on that basis,"id. at 278, and conceded that, "Sherrill effectively overruled [the Second Circuit's] holding in Oneida Indian Nation v. New York . . . that laches and other time-bar defenses should be unavailable. . . " Id. at 277 n.6. The Second Circuit has now recognized that the precedents relied on by this Court's prior ruling have been overruled; therefore, there can be no question that the controlling law has been effectively transformed and that the Court's prior order should be reconsidered.

2. Plaintiffs Assert Possessory Land Claims Subject to Laches Defense

The Second Circuit determined that the Cayugas' claim had always been one "sounding in ejectment." Id. at 274. The Circuit reasoned that though the district court only awarded money damages, the Cayugas had "asserted a continuing right to immediate possession as the basis of all of their claims, and have always sought ejectment of the current landowners as their preferred form of relief." Id. The Second Circuit concluded that this type of claim is inherently disruptive because it seeks to overturn years of settled land ownership. 275. Therefore, as discussed above, the Circuit held that the type of claim advanced by the Cayugas is subject to equitable defenses, including laches. Id.

In their Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs assert a current possessory interest in the land and seek equitable relief restoring possession to them of the land held by Defendants. For example, Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint alleges, inter alia, that they were "unlawfully dispossessed of the subject lands, and that unlawful dispossession of the subject lands continues to the present day." Amended Complaint (Dkt. No. 582 , Attach. 6, Ex. A) at ¶ 49. Moreover, Plaintiffs claim that "[u]nder the Nonintercouse Act, 25 U.S.C. § 177, Plaintiff Tribes have a continuing right to title to and possession of the subject lands, absent a transfer of the subject lands in compliance with that Act." Id. at ¶ 58. In connection with these claims, Plaintiffs seek relief, including, but not limited to: (1) a declaration that they have possessory rights to the claimed lands and that Defendants' interests in the lands are null and void; (2) injunctive relief as necessary to restore possession of the claimed lands to which Defendants claim title; (3) damages in the amount of the fair market value of the subject lands, as improved; and (4) trespass damages. See id. at 24-25. Like the claims before the Second Circuit in Cayuga, Plaintiffs assert certain claims predicated on their continuing right to possess land in the claim area and seek relief returning that land and damages based on their dispossession. The Second Circuit has held that a laches defense does apply to "indisputably disruptive" possessory land claims, like those brought by the Cayugas and Plaintiffs in the instant case, when plaintiffs seek possession of large swaths of land and the possible ejectment of current landowners. See Cayuga, 413 F.3d at 275. Accordingly, pursuant to the Cayuga decision, the Court is now required to find Plaintiffs' possessory land claims are subject to the defense of laches.

3. Application of Laches Defense

The Cayuga court has adopted a specific set of criteria, originally articulated in Sherrill, to determine when laches should bar possessory Indian land claims, such as those before the Court. See Cayuga, 413 F.3d at 277. The Second Circuit concluded that the same considerations that "doomed the Oneidas' claim in Sherrill" required the dismissal of the Cayugas' land claims; these considerations were:

[G]enerations have passed during which non-Indians have owned and developed the area that once composed the Tribe's historic reservation; at least since the middle years of the 19th century, most of the [Tribe] have resided elsewhere; the longstanding, distinctly non-Indian character of the area and its inhabitants; the distance from 1805 to the present day; the [Tribe's] long delay in seeking equitable relief against New York or its local units; and developments in [the area] spanning several generations.

Id. (internal citations and quotations omitted). As discussed below, in light of the factors established by the Second Circuit, the Court concludes that the factual record developed in this case and the Supreme Court's findings in Sherrill warrant dismissal of Plaintiffs' possessory land claims to the land held by Defendants. The generally self-evident findings below ...

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