NATIVE AMERICAN WATER RIGHTS IN OKLAHOMA - CHAPTER 2

Posted on September 3, 2009 by Linda C. Martin

On March 9, 2009, we posted an article regarding issues raised in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma, State of Oklahoma v. Tyson Foods, Inc., et al., Case No. 05-CV-329-GFK regarding the Cherokee Nation ownership interests in the Illinois River and its watershed. In this case, the Attorney General for the State of Oklahoma sued several poultry companies for polluting the Illinois River and its watershed in eastern Oklahoma as the result of the disposal of poultry litter in the watershed. The suit alleges claims under CERCLA, RCRA, trespass and nuisance, among other things. The State of Oklahoma sought money damages and injunctive relief against the poultry companies.

The Poultry Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss for Failure to Join the Cherokee Nation as a Required Party under Rule 19, or in the Alternative, Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings alleging the State lacks standing to prosecute the case. The Poultry Defendants alleged the Cherokee Nation possessed significant, legally protected interests in the Illinois River and it’s Watershed that would be impaired or impeded by its absence from the litigation, and further that the Court should grant judgment as a matter of law to the defendants because the State did not have standing to bring the suit.

 

In an apparent response to the Motion, the State of Oklahoma filed a “Notice of Filing of Document” to which was attached an agreement between the Cherokee Nation and the State of Oklahoma (Agreement). The Agreement, dated May 19, 2009, acknowledged, among other things, that the Cherokee Nation “has substantial interests in . . . water and other natural resources located within the Illinois River Watershed though the extent of those interests has not been fully adjudicated.”

The Agreement stated that the Cherokee Nation “to the extent of its interests in lands, water and other natural resources in the Illinois River . . . delegates and assigns to the State of Oklahoma any and all claims it has or may have against Defendants named in the [Tyson litigation] for their alleged pollution of the lands, water and other natural resources of the Illinois River Watershed resulting from poultry waste.” The Agreement purported to have a retroactive effective date of June 13, 2005, and was signed by the Attorneys General of the Cherokee Nation and the State of Oklahoma. 

The Poultry Defendants immediately challenged the Agreement by filing a “Counter-Notice” the following day, raising several issues as to the procedural and substantive validity of the Notice and Agreement under Oklahoma Law. The Court did not allow further briefing on the issues. 

Instead, the Court ruled on the Defendants’ Motions in a recent Opinion and Order. ___F.R.D.___ 2009 WL 2176337 (N.D. Okla. July 22, 2009)  The Court held that Oklahoma law explicitly sets forth the requirements the State must follow when entering into agreements such as the purported Agreement with the Cherokee Nation, which procedures were not followed in this instance. After examining other issues negating the validity of the Agreement, the Court concluded that that the Agreement was invalid and does not resolve or moot the Rule 19 Motion to Dismiss raised by the Poultry Defendants.  Id. at **3-4.

The Court undertook a Rule 19 analysis to determine if the Cherokee Nation is a required party to the action. Under Rule 19(a)(1), the Court analyzed (1) whether the Cherokee Nation claims an interest relating to the subject of the action, and (2) is so situated that disposing of the action in the Cherokee Nation’s absence may impair or impede its ability to protect the interest or leave an existing party subject to a substantial risk of incurring double, multiple or otherwise inconsistent obligations. 

The Court stated that Rule 19 does not require an absent party to possess an interest; it only requires that it claim an interest in the subject matter of the action. Id. at *4. Thus, the Court did not actually rule on the Cherokee Nation’s rights in the Illinois River watershed. It did, however, determine that the Cherokee Nation claims rights to the Illinois River and its watershed. The Court also noted that the Agreement operates as an admission by Oklahoma of the Cherokee Nation’s interest in the action. Id. at *5.

In addition, the Court examined portions of the Cherokee Nation Code, and noted that it evidences the Cherokee Nation’s interest in protecting the Illinois River and in vindicating its rights for pollution of the Illinois River watershed. It further claims an interest in recovering for itself civil remedies, including damages, for the same injuries to the watershed which are claimed in this action. The Court noted other provisions of the Cherokee Nation Code which evidence the Cherokee Nation’s substantial interest in the subject matter of the instant action. 

The Court noted: “The claimed interests of the Cherokee Nation in the water rights portion of the subject matter of this action are substantial and are neither fabricated nor frivolous.” (citation omitted) Id. at *6. Thus, the Court concluded that the Cherokee Nation claims an interest relating to the subject matter of the instant case for Rule 19 purposes. Id. at *7.

Under the second prong of Rule 19 analysis, the Court reviewed, among other things, whether the Cherokee Nation was so situated that disposing of the action in the Cherokee Nation’s absence might impair or impede its ability to protect its interest or leave an existing party subject to a substantial risk of incurring double, multiple or otherwise inconsistent obligations. After conducting its analysis of the foregoing factors, the Court concluded that proceeding with the case in the absence of the Cherokee Nation would subject the defendants to a substantial risk of incurring double, multiple or otherwise inconsistent obligations with respect to the claims for monetary damages, and would potentially cause prejudice to the Cherokee Nation’s sovereign interests, among other things. Id. at *9 (The parties had agreed that the joinder of the Cherokee Nation in the case was not feasible because of sovereign immunity. Id. at *9.

The Court also noted that the State had an adequate remedy if the damage claims were dismissed in that it could dismiss and refile the action after the State and the Cherokee Nation entered into a legally binding agreement under Oklahoma law authorizing the State to assert the Cherokee Nation’s CERCLA and other damage claims. Id. at *11.

The Court concluded that the State lacked standing to assert the claims of the Cherokee Nation, Id. at *12, and that the Cherokee Nation is a necessary party under Rule 19 with respect to the State’s claims for damages. Id. at *13. (The Poultry Defendants did not seek dismissal of the claims for injunctive relief.) The Court held that the Cherokee Nation is not a required party to the claims for violation of state environmental and agricultural regulations. Id.

On September 2, 2009, the Cherokee Nation filed its Motion to Intervene in the case, only two weeks prior to trial, and one day prior to the Pretrial Conference. 

Stay tuned, we’ll keep you updated.

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