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Indian Nations Law Update - February 2016

In Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin v. United States, 2016 WL 280759 (U.S. 2016), the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin (MITW) had sued the United States in 2005 for unpaid contract support costs relating to contracts with the Indian Health Service (IHS) under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (ISDA) for contract years 1995 through 2004. The contracting officer denied the claims for 1996-1998 as beyond the six-year statute of limitations.

The Tribe argued that that statute should be tolled for the period that the Cherokee Tribe’s class action claim for contract support costs was pending because, until class certification was eventually denied, MITW had understood it could piggyback on the Cherokee class action without presenting its own claim. The district court and court of appeals ruled that MITW’s misunderstanding did not constitute “extraordinary circumstances” sufficient to warrant tolling the statute of limitations. On January 25, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed: “The Tribe’s mistake, in essence, was its inference that the reasoning of the Ramah class certification decision (allowing tribes to participate—without presentment—in the class challenging underpayment of BIA contract support costs) applied to the putative Cherokee Nation class.

This mistake was fundamentally no different from ‘a garden variety claim of excusable neglect,’ … such as a simple ‘miscalculation’ that leads a lawyer to miss a filing deadline.” The Court summarily dismissed the argument that the government’s trust obligation to the MITW should make a difference: “We do not question the general trust relationship between the United States and the Indian tribes, but any specific obligations the Government may have under that relationship are governed by statute rather than the common law … The ISDA and CDA establish a clear procedure for the resolution of disputes over ISDA contracts, with an unambiguous 6-year deadline for presentment of claims. The general trust relationship does not override the clear language of those statutes.”

Copyright © 2022 Godfrey & Kahn S.C.National Law Review, Volume VI, Number 39
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About this Author

Brian Pierson Tribal Lawyer Godfrey Kahn Law Firm
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Brian Pierson leads Godfrey & Kahn's Indian Nations Law Team. Brian clerked for federal district judge Myron L. Gordon before entering private practice. Brian has more than 20 years experience representing Indian tribes, beginning with his successful representation of Chippewa Indians in federal court litigation to prevent racially-motivated interference with treaty-reserved, off-reservation fishing rights.

As leader of the firm's Indian Nations team, Brian's primary objective is to draw on the knowledge and experience of G&K's attorneys to assist tribes in formulating and...

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