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St. Regis Mohawk Tribe v. Cuomo

United States District Court, Second Circuit

August 12, 2013

ANDREW M. CUOMO, as Governor of New York;[1] and FRANKLIN COUNTY, NEW YORK, Defendants.


LAWRENCE E. KAHN, District Judge.


This is an action to clarify the boundaries of an Indian reservation in the northernmost reaches of New York. Plaintiff the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe ("Plaintiff") filed its Complaint on August 5, 2009, seeking a declaratory judgment. Dkt. No. 1 ("Complaint"). On October 30, 2009, Defendants Andrew Cuomo and Franklin County (collectively, "Defendants") filed a Motion to dismiss. Dkt. No. 13 ("Motion"). Briefing was completed on March 25, 2010, and the case was reassigned to the undersigned on October 2, 2012. Dkt. Nos. 18 ("Response"); 23 ("Reply"); 24 ("Supplemental Response"); 27 ("Supplemental Reply"); 32. Because the Court determines that it lacks jurisdiction, Plaintiff's Complaint is dismissed, and Defendants' Motion is denied as moot.


The Court derives the following facts from Plaintiff's Complaint and accepts them as true for the purpose of ruling on whether to dismiss the Complaint. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Plaintiff is a federally recognized Indian tribe with reservation lands on the Canadian border in Franklin and St. Lawrence Counties in far northern New York. Compl. ¶ 5. In 1796, a federally ratified treaty with the Seven Nations of Canada, including "the St. Regis Indians, " established the boundaries of a reservation for "the Indians of the village of St. Regis" ("St. Regis Reservation") and forever extinguished all other claims by member tribes of the Seven Nations to lands in New York. Id . ¶¶ 5, 8; see id. Ex. 1. Congress has passed no subsequent law diminishing the St. Regis Reservation or otherwise altering its boundaries. Id . ¶ 15.

In 1950, Congress passed a law conferring civil jurisdiction on New York state courts to decide cases between Indians, or between an Indian and any other person, to the same extent those courts have jurisdiction under New York law to decide other civil actions arising after September 13, 1952. 25 U.S.C. § 233; cf. id. § 232 (conferring coextensive criminal jurisdiction on New York courts). A proviso states that § 233 shall not "be construed as subjecting the lands within any Indian reservation in the State of New York to taxation for State or local purposes, nor as subjecting any such lands... to execution on any judgment rendered in the State courts...."[2]

Recently, Defendants have attempted to assert authority within the St. Regis Reservation boundaries, particularly in an area within Franklin County called the Hogansburg Triangle ("Triangle"). Compl. ¶ 3. Specifically, Plaintiff complains that: (1) local governments within Franklin County seek to apply their building codes to Mohawk construction in the Triangle; (2) New York seeks to impose its licensing laws on businesses in the Triangle; and (3) Franklin County seeks to impose real property taxes on land owned by Plaintiff or Plaintiff's tribal members within the Triangle. Id . ¶ 13. Plaintiff contends that because only Congress may change or diminish the boundaries of a federally established reservation, § 233 applies throughout the boundaries of the St. Regis Reservation as established in 1796, and that Defendants' actions are inconsistent with § 233. Id . ¶¶ 15-17. Accordingly, Plaintiff seeks a judgment declaring that: (1) Congress has never diminished or changed the boundaries of the St. Regis Reservation surrounding the Triangle and, therefore, those boundaries remain as established in 1796; (2) the Triangle continues to be part of the 1796 reservation; and (3) the jurisdiction of the Tribe, the State, and the local governments within the Triangle is governed by § 233. Id. at 6. Defendants seek dismissal of Plaintiff's Complaint on three grounds: (1) Plaintiff's claim should have been brought in its earlier action seeking to reclaim title to and possession of portions of the St. Regis Reservation that Plaintiff claims were taken unlawfully in the early nineteenth century; (2) the equitable defense articulated by the Supreme Court in City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of N.Y. , 544 U.S. 197 (2005), bars Plaintiff's claim;[3] and (3) Andrew Cuomo has sovereign immunity from Plaintiff's claim. Dkt. No. 13-23 ("Defendants' Brief").


A. Legal Standard

Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction with strictly limited powers. Garanti Finansal Kiralama A.S. v. Aqua Marine & Trading Inc. , 697 F.3d 59, 64 (2d Cir. 2012); see also id. ("There is always a presumption against jurisdiction.'" (quoting Miller v. United States , 78 U.S. 268, 299 (1870))). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(h)(3) requires a court to dismiss an action if the court determines at any time that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction. The only jurisdiction alleged here is federal-question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331.[4] See Compl. ¶ 4. "Under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, federal district courts have jurisdiction over cases arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.'" New York v. Shinnecock Indian Nation , 686 F.3d 133, 138 (2d Cir. 2012). This statutory grant of jurisdiction is narrower than the full range of power permitted by parallel language in Article III of the Constitution but not to date authorized by Congress. Merrell Dow Pharms. Inc. v. Thompson , 478 U.S. 804, 808 (1986).

"[T]he presence or absence of federal-question jurisdiction is governed by the well-pleaded complaint rule, ' which provides that federal jurisdiction exists only when a federal question is presented on the face of the plaintiff's properly pleaded complaint." Rivet v. Regions Bank of La. , 522 U.S. 470, 475 (1998) (quoting Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams , 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987) (internal quotation marks omitted)); accord Shinnecock , 686 F.3d at 138. The "vast majority" of cases over which federal courts have federal-question jurisdiction are "those in which federal law creates the cause of action"; in other cases, federal-question jurisdiction may exist where "the vindication of a right under state law necessarily turns on some construction of federal law." Merrell Dow , 478 U.S. at 808; see also Shinnecock , 686 F.3d at 138 ("A cause of action raises an issue of federal law only when a right or immunity created by the Constitution or laws of the United States... [is an] essential [element] of the... cause of action.'" (quoting Gully v. First Nat'l Bank , 299 U.S. 109, 112 (1936) (alterations in original))). Federal defenses do not suffice. Shinnecock , 686 F.3d at 138. Moreover, "simply raising a federal issue in a complaint will not automatically confer federal question jurisdiction." Perpetual Secs., Inc. v. Tang , 290 F.3d 132, 137 (2d Cir. 2002). Rather, a court must "proceed prudently and make pragmatic distinctions between those allegations, if any, that raise substantial questions and those that... [are] so patently without merit as to justify... the court's dismissal for want of jurisdiction." Id . (quoting Duke Power Co. v. Carolina Env. Study Grp. , 438 U.S. 59, 70 (1978)).

B. Discussion

Here, Plaintiff has not alleged a cause of action. The crux of Plaintiff's argument is that Defendants are violating 25 U.S.C. § 233 by attempting to impose licensing laws, building codes, and property taxes within the Triangle. Plaintiff's invocations of congressional inaction, a federally ratified treaty, and federal case law on reservation boundary diminishment serve only to support Plaintiff's argument that § 233 applies throughout the ...

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