Tulsa, Okla. — An Oklahoma attorney is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity for Indian tribes in light of the increasing expansion of tribes into business operations.
Jonathan Neff, whose clients sued the Seneca-Cayuga tribe’s cigarette company in Grove, Okla., said tribal sovereign immunity leaves companies doing business with tribes with no legal recourse when disputes arise.
He said that is the consequence of a decision last week by a federal appeals court in Denver unless the high court revises the tribal immunity doctrine.
The appeals court ruled that the tribe’s cigarette company cannot be sued because it is shielded by the tribe’s sovereign immunity.
“We anticipate filing an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court,” Neff said. “This case is important because it is an example of tribal management misrepresenting things in business transactions and then claiming sovereign immunity to avoid liability.
“With the enormous expansion of tribal business operations, this type of behavior represents a great risk to the business community generally, and for that reason the case needs to be taken to the Supreme Court for review,” Neff said.
The high court accepts only about 1 percent of the cases it is asked to review.
Neff’s clients, Native American Distributing Co. and one of its owners-officers, John Dilliner, sued the Seneca-Cayuga Tobacco Co. in U.S. District Court in Tulsa in 2005.
The plaintiffs alleged that the cigarette company and its officials engaged in illegal competitive practices and repeatedly broke agreements with the distributing company.
“As sovereign powers, federally recognized Indian tribes possess immunity from suit in federal court,” the appellate judges wrote in affirming U.S. District Judge Terence Kern’s dismissal of the lawsuit.
Tulsa lawyer Scott Wood, who represented the cigarette company’s officials, and Neff agreed that the decision precludes lawsuits against tribes in any court.
Neff said the Supreme Court “has not reviewed the tribal immunity doctrine in many years and may use this case as an opportunity to review the doctrine.”
A decision by the high court likely would affect all tribes, he said.