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Onondaga Nation v. State

September 22, 2010

ONONDAGA NATION, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
STATE OF NEW YORK, GEORGE PATAKI, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, DAVID PATTERSON, ONONDAGA COUNTY, CITY OF SYRACUSE, HONEYWELL INTERNATIONAL, INC., TRIGEN SYRACUSE ENERGY CORPORATION, CLARK CONCRETE COMPANY, INC., VALLEY REALTY DEVELOPMENT COMPANY, INC., AND HANSON AGGREGATES NORTH AMERICA, DEFENDANTS.



MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

On March 11, 2005, the Onondaga Nation filed suit in the Northern District of New York, seeking a declaratory judgment (i) that certain treaties dating from the late 18th and early 19th centuries are null and void, and (ii) that the land conveyed by those agreements remains the property of, and title thereto is held by, the Onondaga Nation and Haudenosaunee, a confederacy of Nations which includes the Onondaga. See Compl. ¶¶ 6, 44. An Amended Complaint followed on August 1, 2005, which is the subject of the Motions to dismiss presently before the Court. Dkt. Nos. 29, 43, 45. The Onondaga Nation ("Nation" or "Onondaga") names as Defendants the State of New York and George Pataki,*fn1 in his individual and official capacity as Governor of New York at the time of filing ("State Defendants"), and the City of Syracuse, Honeywell International, Inc., Onondaga County, Trigen Syracuse Energy Corporation, Clark Concrete Company, Inc., Valley Realty Development Company, Inc., and Hanson Aggregates North America ("Non-state Defendants"). In these grouping, the State Defendants and Non-state Defendants each moved to dismiss the action in its entirety on August 15, 2006. For the reasons that follow, their Motions are granted; and the Onondaga's suit is dismissed with prejudice.

II. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, the Onondaga Nation, is recognized by the United States as an "Indian nation," with a population primarily located on its reservation south of Nedrow, New York. Compl. ¶ 6. The government of the Onondaga Nation, the Onondaga Council of Chiefs, is recognized by the United States through the Secretary of the Interior, and the relationship of the Nation with the United States has never been terminated. Id. The instant action is brought by the Nation both on its own behalf and on the behalf of the Haudenosaunee. According to Plaintiff, the Haudenosaunee is known in English as the "Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy," and it entered into the Treaty of Fort Stanwix of 1784 and the Treaty of Canandaigua of 1794. Id. The Onondagas are the "firekeepers" of the Haudenosaunee, and Plaintiff brings this suit by authority of the Council of Chiefs of the Haudenosaunee in addition to that of its own Council of Chiefs. Id.

The Nation alleges that various lands situated in present-day central New York were unlawfully acquired by the State of New York in violation of the federal Indian Trade and Intercourse Acts, the United States Constitution, the Treaty of Fort Stanwix of 1784, and the Treaty of Canandaigua of 1794. Am. Compl. ¶ 2. This action seeks, inter alia, an express declaration that such was the case. The Nation cites as the basis for it claims federal common law; the United States Constitution; the Indian Trade and Intercourse Acts of 1790, 1793, 1796, 1799, 1802, and 1834, codified at 25 U.S.C. §177; the Treaty of Fort Stanwix of 1784, 7 Stat. 15; and the Treaty of Canandaigua of 1794, 7 Stat. 44. Id.

Given the nature of Plaintiff's claim, the State of New York is sued as the original purchaser of the land in question, which the State continues to partially occupy or claim an interest therein. Id. ¶ 7. The Governor is sued in his individual and official capacity, as Plaintiff alleges "he is acting beyond the scope of his constitutional and other authority in unlawfully claiming an interest in the plaintiff's lands." Id. ¶ 10. Similarly, Onondaga County, New York and the City of Syracuse are named for occupying or maintaining an interest in some portion of the land. Id. ¶¶ 11-12. Honeywell International, Inc. is sued on the same basis; the Nation alleges, in particular, that the corporation has "industrial properties along the southwest shore of Onondaga Lake" which "have degraded the land to which the Onondaga Nation holds title under federal law." Id. ¶ 13. The Nation also alleges that Clark Concrete Company, Inc. and Valley Realty Development Company, Inc., the former's subsidiary, occupy or claim an interest in the land and have operated a gravel mine that has impaired and displaced the "head waters of Onondaga Creek" and "areas of extreme archeological and cultural sensitivity for the Onondaga Nation." Id. ¶ 14. Hansen Aggregates North America is sued for occupying or claiming part of the subject land, including property known as "Jamesville quarry," a large open pit mine that has "devastated" the area and "degraded the land to which the Onondaga Nation holds title under federal law." Id. ¶ 15. Finally, the Nation alleges that Trigen Syracuse Energy Corporation occupies or claims some of the land, a portion of which contains an energy "cogeneration" plant that emits hydrochloric acid and dioxins which have "polluted the air and degraded the land to which the Onondaga Nation holds title." Id. ¶ 16. In broad terms, Plaintiff describes the aboriginal Onondaga Nation within New York State as being located between the aboriginal land of the Oneida Nation on the east and the Cayuga Nation on the west; it was situated between the St. Lawrence River, along the east side of Lake Ontario and south to the border with Pennsylvania, varying in width from about 10 to 40 miles. Id. ¶ 16. According to the Nation, this aboriginal zone "has never been sold, ceded, or given up by any Indian nation or entity." Id. ¶ 22.

The Nation recounts that in September of 1788, individuals claiming to represent the Onondaga Nation negotiated a treaty with the State of New York, resulting in a document purporting to cede and grant to the State of New York all of the Nation's land except for a limited tract which the Nation would retain. Id. ¶ 26. Plaintiff asserts that neither the Onondaga Nation nor the Haudenosaunee authorized or consented to such a treaty. Id. ¶ 25. Later, on June 16, 1790, the State of New York entered a treaty with persons claiming to represent the Nation "'ratify[ing] and confirm[ing]' the 1788 'treaty.'" Id. ¶ 29. Also in 1790, the United States Congress passed the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act governing the purchase of Indian land, which, as re-enacted and codified, has remained in continuous force. Id. ¶ 30. Plaintiff cites the provision that: "No purchase, grant, lease or other conveyance of land, or of any title or claim thereto, from any Indian nation or tribe of Indians, shall be of any validity in law or equity, unless the same be made by treaty or conveyance entered into pursuant to the Constitution." Id.; 25 U.S.C. §177. The Nation contends that the June 16 treaty was ineffective to convey title to any lands, because it could have no legal effect until it was recorded as required by state law, and at the time it was recorded, on November 25, 1791, it was in contravention of the United States Constitution, the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act of 1790, and the Treaty of Fort Stanwix of 1784." Id. ¶ 31. The treaty concerning the Onondaga territory, according to Plaintiff, was only properly approved by the New York State Act of April 10, 1813, thus rendering the 1788 and 1790 treaties a "nullity" in view of its conflict with the Constitution and the first Indian Trade and Intercourse Act. Id. ¶¶ 32-34.

In 1793, New York entered into another treaty with persons claiming to represent the Nation, whereby two tracts set aside for the Onondaga by the 1790 treaty were released to New York. Id. ¶ 35. Plaintiff alleges that a third treaty conveying further Onondaga lands "in defiance of Congress's express prohibition set forth in the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act of 1793" followed in 1795 between New York and persons claiming to represent the Nation. Id. ¶ 36. Later, in 1817, another such treaty was entered into by New York and persons claiming to represent the Nation, conveying away two additional tracts of land set aside by the 1790 treaty. Id. ¶ 37. In 1822, a fifth treaty was made between the State and persons claiming to represent the Nation, which conveyed another portion of land.

The Nation alleges that the each of the aforementioned treaties "were never approved or ratified by the Onondaga Nation or the Haudenosaunee" and none "were made by persons having authority or legal capacity to convey the land." Further, the Nation states that the treaties were at no point ratified or approved by the United States, such that "[n]o part of the subject land has ever been ceded or given up pursuant to a treaty or conveyance entered into under the Constitution nor pursuant to any act of Congress." Id. ¶¶ 39-40. From this premise, Plaintiff contends that "because of the failure of the New York legislature to approve the 'treaties' as required by New York's Constitution and the Act of 1788, and also independently because of the failure to record the 1790 treaty until after the effective date of the United States Constitution and the first Indian Trade and Intercourse Act," the land purported to have been conveyed "remains the property of the Onondaga Nation and the Haudenosaunee." Id. ¶ 41.

Predicated on the alleged defectiveness of these treaties, this action asserts that "[b]ecause the defendants base their claimed interests in the subject lands on the void 'treaties,' the defendants have no lawful interest in the subject land." Id. ¶ 44. The Nation maintains that it has consistently protested New York State's exercise of jurisdiction over the land in question; however, the Nation emphasizes that "federal courts were not open to hear these cases until 1974 at the earliest, and that the prima facie elements of the claims were not upheld until 1985." Id. ¶ 46. Plaintiff also makes reference to practical difficulties in pressing its claims, including "lack of financial resources, lack of access to attorneys, lack of federal court jurisdiction, and an inability to communicate with and understand the English language adequately." Id. ¶ 47. The Nation states that it has nonetheless retained "cultural, spiritual, legal, and political ties to the subject land" and attempted to protect sites of importance from external harms. Id. ¶ 49.

Non-Indians have extensively populated and developed the aboriginal lands subject to the treaties during the many years subsequent to the allegedly illegitimate conveyances. Id. ¶ 50. Plaintiff, however, alleges that New York and the other defendants have known or had reason to know of the Nation's continual claim to ownership. Id. ¶ 52. Indeed, Plaintiff asserts that the State conducted itself in "bad faith by, among other things, deliberately dealing with individuals who lacked authority to act for the Nation, by deceiving these persons and the Nation about the nature of the transactions, and by ignoring the federal government's explicit warnings not to violate the Trade and Intercourse Act . . . ." Id. ¶ 53. On the basis of this history, the Nation now seeks a declaratory judgment ruling that "the purported conveyances of the 'treaties' of 1788, 1790, 1793, 1795, 1817, and 1822 were and are null and void" and "the subject land remains the property of the Onondaga Nation and the Haudenosaunee, and that the Onondaga Nation and Haudenosaunee continue to hold title to the subject land." Id.

III. DISCUSSION

a. Standard of Review

A complaint is subject to dismissal for failure "to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). When considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), a district court must accept the allegations made by the non-moving party as true and "draw all inferences in the light most favorable" to the non-moving party. In re NYSE Specialists Sec, Litig,, 503 F.3d 89, 95 (2d Cir. 2007). To survive a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that ...


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