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Firm Wins Motion to Dismiss in Case Against Tribal Officials Based on Sovereign Immunity

18 Jul 23

By Peebles Kidder

[Sacramento, CA] — On July 17, 2023, Federal Judge Robert Reavis ruled from the bench in favor of three Modoc Nation tribal officials on their motion to dismiss in Bennefield, et al v. Burkybile, et al. (Court of Indian Offenses, CIV-23-MO1). Peebles Kidder represented the tribal officials named in the litigation.

At a hearing on the motion, Peebles Kidder partner Patrick Bergin argued that the claims made by 58 plaintiffs in their petition regarding tribal membership eligibility failed to meet the necessary legal standards required to proceed. Specifically, he highlighted several deficiencies in the petition; most importantly the failure to name the real party in interest, the Modoc Nation, as a defendant, and the request for a declaratory judgment against a non-party. He explained that while Modoc Nation is a necessary party, it could not be joined to the case without a waiver of sovereign immunity from suit, which deprives the court of jurisdiction.

Furthermore, Mr. Bergin emphasized that the individual defendants, named in their official capacities, were protected by sovereign immunity while performing their official duties. He asserted the importance of respecting tribal sovereignty and the Modoc Nation's right to govern its internal affairs, including in tribal membership matters.

Recognizing the defendants' arguments, the Court ruled from the bench and held that the court did not have jurisdiction to hear the case, as it was actually against the Modoc Nation, a sovereign entity protected by sovereign immunity.

This decision upholds the principles of tribal sovereignty, respects the Modoc Nation's authority in determining its membership criteria and procedures, and reinforces the importance of exhausting tribal remedies before seeking relief in a different forum.

The Peebles Kidder team representing the Tribal officials in this case were partners Patrick R. Bergin and W. Blake Follis.