WPX Energy Williston, LLC v. Hon. B.J. Jones, No. 22-2025 (8th Cir. 2023)Annotate this Case
These appeals arise from a dispute over rights-of-way granted to WPX Energy Williston, LLC by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The areas are located on allotments of land owned by members of the Fettig family within the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. WPX Energy and the Fettigs agreed to a condition, which was incorporated into the grants, that bans smoking on the right-of-way land. In 2020, the Fettigs sued WPX Energy in the Three Affiliated Tribes District Court, alleging that the company breached the smoking ban. WPX Energy moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. The tribal court concluded that it possessed jurisdiction over the case and denied the motion to dismiss. WPX Energy appealed the decision to a tribal appellate court. he district court concluded that WPX Energy had exhausted its tribal court remedies and that the tribal court lacked jurisdiction, so it granted a preliminary injunction.
The Eighth Circuit vacated the injunction and remanded to the district court with directions to dismiss the complaint without prejudice. The court concluded that WPX Energy did not exhaust its tribal court remedies and that a ruling in federal court on the question of tribal court jurisdiction was premature. The court explained that the policy of promoting tribal self-governance is not limited to tribal court proceedings that involve the development of a factual record. Rather, exhaustion of tribal court remedies “means that tribal appellate courts must have the opportunity to review the determinations of the lower tribal courts.”
Court Description: [Colloton, Author, with Benton and Kelly, Circuit Judges] Civil case - Tribal Courts. In obtaining consent from the landowners before applying for right-of-way access to individually-owned Indian land, WPX negotiated side letter agreements with the landowners banning worker smoking on the land and agreeing to pay $5,000 for each violation; the landowners sued WPX in Tribal Court, alleging WPX had violated the side letter agreements by permitting smoking; the Tribal Court denied WPX's motion to dismiss the action for lack of jurisdiction, and WPX appealed to the Tribal Supreme Court; before a ruling was issued, WPX filed this action in federal court seeking a declaration that the Tribal Court lacked jurisdiction over the landowners' suit and enjoining further proceedings in Tribal Court; the district court concluded WPX had exhausted its tribal court remedies and enjoined the suit. The Tribal Court judge and the Tribal Court appeal. Held, the matter was not final in tribal court because an appeal was pending and WPX must exhaust its tribal court remedies before proceeding with an action in federal court. The injunction is vacated, and the case is remanded with directions to dismiss the complaint without prejudice for failure to exhaust tribal court remedies.