Becker v. Ute Indian Tribe, No. 16-4175 (10th Cir. 2017)Annotate this Case
The Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation appealed a preliminary injunction ordering it not to proceed with litigation in tribal court against a nonmember former contractor, Lynn Becker. The district court ruled that although the parties’ dispute would ordinarily come within the tribal court’s jurisdiction, their Independent Contractor Agreement (the Contract) waived the Tribe’s right to litigate in that forum. The Tribe argued: (1) the tribal-exhaustion rule, which ordinarily requires a federal court to abstain from determining the jurisdiction of a tribal court until the tribal court has ruled on its own jurisdiction, deprived the district court of jurisdiction to determine the tribal court’s jurisdiction; and (2) even if exhaustion was not required, the preliminary injunction was improper because the Contract did not waive the Tribe’s right to litigate this dispute in tribal court. In addition, the Tribe challenged the district court’s dismissal of its claims under the federal civil-rights act, 42 U.S.C. 1983, seeking to halt state-court litigation between it and Becker. The Tenth Circuit did not agree the tribal-exhaustion rule was jurisdictional, but agreed the district court should have abstained on the issue. Although the Contract contained a waiver of the tribal-exhaustion rule, Becker could not show a likelihood of success based on the validity of the waiver; he failed to adequately counter the Tribe’s contention that the entire Contract, including the waiver, was void because it did not receive federal-government approval, as was required for contracts transferring property held in trust for the Tribe by the federal government. With respect to the Tribe’s claim under 42 U.S.C. 1983, the Tenth Circuit found the Tribe has not stated a claim because it is not a “person” entitled to relief under that statute when it is seeking, as here, to vindicate only a sovereign interest. To resolve the remaining issues raised in this case, the Court adopted its decision in the companion case of Ute Indian Tribe v. Lawrence, No. 16-4154 (August 25, 2017).