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Chemehuevi Indian Tribe v. Jewell

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

September 17, 2014

CHEMEHUEVI INDIAN TRIBE; TIFFANY T. ADAMS; DUSTI ROSE BACON; MICHELLE DELORES BARRETT; JUANA BUSH; ANGELA CARRILLO; JOHN DEVILLA; WACO ESCOBAR; MARK ESWONIA; EMMANUEL EVANS; TONY FIXEL; RIKKI HARPER; JESSE SEYMORE GORDON; LEONA GORDON; JOHN W. HERNANDEZ; HOPE HINMAN; EVANGELINA HOOVER; ANGELA MARIE JONES; SHARON MELISSA KASEMAN; BRIAN KELLYWOOD; JOSEPH ALAN LUSCH, JR.; STEVEN DALE MADEROS; RAMON CAMPASS MARTINEZ; MICHELLE MENDOZA; HOWARD IRVING PEACH; SIERRA PENCILLE; RAMONA MADALENE POWELL; CHRISTINA RAY; RICHARD SANDATE, JR.; ROBERTA SESTIAGA; TITO KATTS SMITH; ADAM TRUJILLO, JR.; ADAM STEVEN TRUJILLO, SR.; SAMIYAH WHITE, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
SALLY JEWELL, Secretary of the United States Department of the Interior, Defendant-Appellee

Argued and Submitted, Pasadena, California April 7, 2014.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California. D.C. No. 2:11-cv-04437-SVW-DTB. Stephen V. Wilson, District Judge, Presiding.

SUMMARY[*]

Tribal Affairs

The panel affirmed the district court's summary judgment in favor of the Secretary of the United States Department of the Interior in an action brought by the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe alleging that the Secretary violated the Administrative Procedure Act by determining that the Department of the Interior was not authorized to approve the Tribe's assignments of land to certain of its members.

The Tribe issued land assignment deeds to some of its members, which the Tribe submitted to the Bureau of Indian Affairs Western Regional Director, seeking approval under 25 U.S.C. § 81 (2000) (" Section 81" ). The Interior Board of Indian Appeals concluded that the deeds could not be approved under Section 81 because doing so would violate 25 U.S.C. § 177 (" Section 177" ).

The panel applied Chevron analysis, and at step one of the analysis, held that the plain language of Section 81 and Section 177 revealed that Congress did not intend for the Secretary of the Interior to approve agreements under Section 81 that would otherwise be prohibited by Section 177. The panel held that Section 177 prohibited the conveyance of land from an Indian Tribe unless approved by Congress, and Congress had not approved the transaction at issue here. The panel concluded that the Secretary of the Interior properly denied approval of the deeds under Section 81 because such conveyances would violate federal law.

Lester J. Marston (argued) and Scott Johnson, Rapport and Marston, Ukiah, California, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

William B. Lazarus, Elizabeth A. Peterson, and Thekla Hansen-Young (argued), United States Department of Justice, Environment & Natural Resources Division, Washington, D.C., for Defendants-Appellees.

Before: Sidney R. Thomas, Milan D. Smith, Jr., and Morgan Christen, Circuit Judges. Opinion by Judge Thomas.

OPINION

Page 901

THOMAS, Circuit Judge:

The Chemehuevi Indian Tribe and thirty-four of its members (collectively the " Tribe" ) appeal from the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the Secretary of the United States Department of the Interior (" Interior" or " Secretary" ). The Tribe alleges that the Secretary, acting through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (" BIA" ), violated the Administrative Procedure Act (" APA" ) by determining that Interior was not authorized to approve the Tribe's assignments of land to certain of its members. We affirm.

I

The Chemeheuvi Reservation (" Reservation" ) sits on 32,000 acres in San Bernardino County, California. Title to the Tribe's Reservation lands is owned and held in trust by the United States government. The Reservation's beautiful location belies a more turbulent history.

In the early 1940s, in order to provide water to burgeoning communities in California and nearby states, Congress condemned the bottom land of the Reservation--where all the members lived--in order to construct Parker Dam and create Lake Havasu. The Dam left the Reservation flooded, and all but one of the tribal families were forced to relocate off reservation. Many of the displaced members resettled in locations not far from the Reservation, including Burbank, Los Angeles, and Phoenix.

Eventually, the flooding subsided and the land became hospitable. As a result,

Page 902

in 1970, members of the Tribe sought to reorganize the tribal government and provide incentives for its members to move back to the Reservation. Specifically, the Tribe has attempted over the past ten years to convey exclusive rights of use and possession of land to certain of its members, having concluded that many members who had resettled owned homes in their new communities and would likely need a large incentive before selling their existing homes and relocating to build new homes on the Reservation.

To that end, in 2001 the Tribe adopted Ordinance 01-08-25-1-A, which established procedures under which the Tribal Council can approve land assignment deeds to tribal members. Pursuant to the Ordinance and deeds, tribal members would " be allowed to occupy unassigned tribal trust lands for residential purposes . . . in a manner similar to [fee simple ownership] in land off the Reservation." The Ordinance describes the assignments as " formal exclusive right[s] to use and possess tribal land." The Tribe itself described the assignments as " interest[s] in the parcel of tribal land . . . that [were] as close to fee simple absolute as possible."

Pursuant to the Ordinance, the Tribe issued deeds to some of its members, which the Tribe then submitted to the BIA's Western Regional Director, seeking their approval under 25 U.S.C. § 81 (2000) (" Section 81" ). The Regional Director declined to approve the deeds, and the Tribe appealed to the Interior Board of Indian Appeals (" IBIA" ).[1]

Reaching the merits of the appeal, the IBIA concluded that the deeds cannot be approved under Section 81 because doing so would violate 25 U.S.C. § 177 (" Section 177" ). Chemehuevi Indian Tribe v. W. Reg'l Dir., 52 IBIA 192, 192-93 (2010). Section 81(b) provides that " [n]o agreement or contract with an Indian tribe that encumbers Indian lands for a period of 7 or more years shall be valid unless that agreement or contract bears the approval of the Secretary." 25 U.S.C. § 81. Section 81(d)(1) requires the Secretary to reject agreements that " violate[] Federal law." Id.

The IBIA determined that the deeds are encumbrances under Section 81, and no party disputes this conclusion. As the IBIA explained, " [t]he Tribe's land assignment deeds meet this criteria because they grant to third parties (the assignees) a right of entry on, a claim to, and nearly exclusive proprietary control over a parcel of the Tribe's trust land to the exclusion of all others, including the Tribe." Chemehuevi Indian Tribe, 52 IBIA at 203.

The IBIA also concluded that the deeds are conveyances under 25 U.S.C. § 177. Section 177 provides that " [n]o purchase, grant, lease, or other conveyance of lands, or of any title or claim thereto" from an Indian tribe is valid unless it is approved by Congress. Thus, the IBIA concluded that while the deeds encumber lands pursuant

Page 903

to Section 81--and therefore would otherwise be eligible for approval under that section--they also " convey an exclusive possessory interest that is intended to be perpetual" under Section 177. Chemehuevi Indian Tribe, 52 IBIA at 193. Reading the two sections together, and noting that Congress has not approved these types of assignments under Section 177, the IBIA determined that the Secretary could not approve the assignments. Id. at 211.

The Tribe then filed this action in District Court for the Central District of California, alleging that the Secretary violated the APA by not approving the deeds. The Tribe contended that the Secretary's final decision was erroneous because the deeds do not completely extinguish the Tribe's interest in the land--and thus do not violate Section 177. The Tribe also contended that Congress amended Section 81 so that assignments falling under that statute are no longer subject to Section 177.

Upon considering multiple motions, the district court granted summary judgment to the Secretary, concluding that the IBIA's interpretation of the relevant statutes and regulations was reasonable under Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, ...


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