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Germain v. United States Department of Interior

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, at Seattle

May 20, 2015

RUDY ST. GERMAIN, et al., Plaintiffs,


RICHARD A. JONES, District Judge.


This matter comes before the court on Defendants' motion for partial summary judgment and their motion for a protective order. No one requested oral argument, and the court finds that oral argument is not necessary. For the reasons stated below, the court GRANTS the motion for partial summary judgment (Dkt. # 37), although it does not reach several of Defendants' arguments. It GRANTS the motion for protective order (Dkt. # 38), but does so without prejudice to the possibility that Plaintiffs are entitled to some discovery. Part IV of this order contains instructions to the parties to submit a joint status report by June 18, 2015.


When Plaintiffs Rudy St. Germain and Michelle Roberts filed this lawsuit nearly two years ago, the Defendants (officials of the United States Department of the Interior) were in the midst of conducting an all-mail "Secretarial election" to determine whether the Nooksack Indian Tribe of Washington (the "Tribe") would adopt an amendment to the Nooksack Constitution to delete a provision that granted membership in the Tribe to "persons who possess at least one-fourth (1/4) degree Indian blood and who can prove Nooksack ancestry to any degree." A Secretarial election is the federally-conducted election that Section 16 of the Indian Reorganization Act (25 U.S.C. § 476) mandates when a tribe wishes to enact a constitution or amend its constitution. Regulations implementing Section 16 require the Interior Secretary to convene an "election board" responsible for calling the election, registering voters, counting ballots, resolving voting disputes, and certifying results. 25 U.S.C. § 81.8(a). As the court will discuss in detail later, the Reorganization Act also requires the Secretary to review a proposed constitution or amendment to determine if it complies with applicable federal laws. 25 U.S.C. § 476(c), (d).

Plaintiffs believed that the amendment, if ratified, would help the Tribe "disenroll" them and about 300 other members of the Tribe, a faction that Plaintiffs call the "Nooksack 306." Plaintiffs filed their amended complaint on June 17, 2013, just four days before the completion of the Secretarial election. They listed five causes of action. They claimed that the Defendants violated the Indian Reorganization Act by either not determining whether the amendment complied with applicable laws or by wrongfully concluding that it did, that Defendants violated the Fifth And Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, that Defendants violated the Administrative Procedures Act ("APA") both by authorizing the election and in regulating voter registration and balloting, that Defendants breached the trust duties that the United States owes the Tribe and its members, and that Defendants violated the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") by failing to respond properly to requests for information that Plaintiffs submitted in March and May 2013.

On the same day they filed their amended complaint, Plaintiffs moved for a temporary restraining order to stop the election. They invoked only the Reorganization Act and the APA in that motion. The court questioned whether the Reorganization Act or the APA permitted a pre-election challenge, noting that both statutes provided for postelection remedies that would be just as effective. Jun. 19, 2013 ord. (Dkt. # 25) at 7-8. The court assumed the availability of pre-election relief, but concluded that Plaintiffs had neither established that they were likely to succeed on their pre-election challenge nor that equitable factors favored injunctive relief.

Although circumstances have changed since the court's last substantive order nearly two years ago, this litigation has scarcely progressed. The election concluded in June 2013. On June 24, 2013, the election board certified that the Tribe had adopted the constitutional amendment at issue by a vote of 377 for and 239 against. By August 2, 2013, Defendant Scott Akin, the Director of the northwest region of the Bureau of Indian Affairs ("BIA"), had issued a memorandum (AR-A at 540-46)[1] overruling Plaintiffs' post-election challenge to the amendment, thereby carrying out his statutory duty to approve the results of the Secretarial election. 25 U.S.C. § 476(d) (requiring the Secretary to approve the results of the election within 45 days). Plaintiffs filed an administrative appeal of that decision in August 2013, then voluntarily withdrew their appeal in November 2013. AR-B at 6, 40-41. The parties asked the court in November 2013 to excuse them from the requirement to submit a joint status report, then followed that request with Defendants' motion requesting that the court declare, in advance, what standard of review applied to each of Plaintiffs' causes of action other than their FOIA claim. The court refused to rule on that motion, noting that it was not ripe and that Defendants' insistence that they need not produce discovery beyond the administrative record was impossible to resolve where they had not yet produced an administrative record. Jun. 18, 2014 ord. (Dkt. # 33). Defendants produced an administrative record a month later. Not satisfied with that record, Plaintiffs served discovery requests in August and October 2014.

Defendants have now filed two more motions. In one, they ask the court to dispose of Plaintiffs' constitutional claim, their breach-of-trust-claim, and their Reorganization Act claim. That disposition would leave only Plaintiffs' FOIA and APA claims. In Defendants' view, the court must resolve the APA claim based solely on the administrative record, and Plaintiffs are entitled to no discovery on that claim. The parties apparently agree that discovery is not necessary, at least at this stage, on Plaintiffs' FOIA claim. For these reasons, Defendants also moved for a protective order that would relieve them of the obligation to respond to Plaintiffs' discovery requests. Those requests include a set of interrogatories and requests for production of documents ("RFPs") as well as a set of requests for admission ("RFAs"). The interrogatories and RFPs are concerned solely with Defendants' Reorganization-Act-mandated review of the proposed amendment. The RFAs inquire about Defendants' reliance on a set of BIA guidelines for Secretarial elections, which BIA office conducted review of the amendment in question, and Defendants' understanding of the impact of the amendment on the rolls of the Tribe.

The court's ruling, which it explains in the next section, is as follows:

1) The court dismisses Plaintiffs' claim invoking the Fifth and Fifteenth Amendments as well as its breach-of-trust claim.
2) The court rules that Plaintiffs' Reorganization Act claim, which challenges only the Secretary's pre-election review of the proposed amendment, is moot in light of the Secretary's completion of post-election review.
3) Because the allegations of Plaintiffs' complaint challenge only the Secretary's pre-election legal review of the proposed amendment, they must amend their complaint if they wish to challenge the Secretary's post-election review.
4) Plaintiffs' discovery requests either seek information that is not relevant to their remaining claims or they seek information without explaining why the administrative record is inadequate. The court accordingly grants Defendants' motion for a protective order. The court does not rule out the possibility that Plaintiffs can demonstrate that they are entitled to discovery.
5) The parties must submit a joint status report with specific proposals for bringing this ...

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