Tribal sovereign immunity protects tribes from suits involving both governmental and commercial activities conducted on or off a reservation.

   By JOHN K. WILEY  / Associated Press



Commercial activities of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation are protected from lawsuits under tribal sovereign immunity, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.


The ruling reverses a Court of Appeals decision in a racial discrimination lawsuit filed by a non-Indian against two corporations of the Eastern Washington tribe and a supervisor.


The opinion, written by Justice Richard B. Sanders, found that state laws echo federal laws granting the Colvilles’ tribal corporations sovereign immunity unless there is an express waiver by the tribe or immunity is abrogated by Congress.


Tribal sovereign immunity protects tribes from suits involving both governmental and commercial activities conducted on or off a reservation. The Colvilles’ reservation covers about 1.4 million acres north of the Columbia River in Okanogan and Ferry counties.


The lawsuit was brought by Christopher Wright, a non-Indian hired by the Colville Tribal Services Corp. in July 2002 as a pipe layer and equipment operator. Wright worked off-reservation on a project to construct a water line for a U.S. Navy housing development in Oak Harbor.


Wright resigned in February 2003. He sued the Colville Tribal Enterprise Corp., its wholly owned subsidiary CTSC, and his former supervisor, Don Braman, alleging race discrimination, racial harassment, hostile work environment, negligent supervision and negligent infliction of emotional distress.


Island County Superior Court dismissed the suit for lack of jurisdiction. That was reversed by the state Court of Appeals, which found CTEC and CTSC were not protected by tribal sovereign immunity.


Breean Beggs, a Spokane Center for Justice lawyer who represented Wright, said his client did not challenge Indian government sovereignty, but only the claim of immunity by a for-profit construction company owned by the tribe.


Beggs said he was unable to contact Wright Thursday. Wright will decide whether to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, Beggs said.


“The law is still quite unsettled regarding corporations who have tribes as shareholders,” Beggs said, noting that in five similar cases, courts found no immunity in three.


Tribal enterprise corporations are fairly new and create legal problems when the work is being done off-reservation, Beggs said.


“The real issue is going to come up; when something happens involuntarily, like when a truck owned by the tribal corporation is involved in a head-on collision and kills a family of four,” he said. “Under this opinion, the tribal corporation would have complete immunity and that family would have no recourse.”


Michael Griffin, a lawyer with the Jackson Lewis firm in Seattle that represented the tribe, said Thursday he was trying to contact his client for permission to comment on the decision.


The CTEC owns and manages 14 business enterprises on behalf of the tribe, including three casinos, sawmills and logging companies, stores and a credit union.


Sanders’ opinion was endorsed by Chief Justice Gerry L. Alexander and Justices Susan Owens and Bobbe J. Bridge. Justices Barbara A. Madsen and Mary E. Fairhurst concurred in a separate opinion.


A dissent written by Justice Charles Johnson contends the case should be sent back to a trial court to determine facts about whether the corporations are tribal entities protected by sovereign immunity. Justices Tom Chambers and James M. Johnson signed the dissent.


But Sanders wrote their dissent fails to identify any disputed facts, so “in the absence of an actual factual dispute, this is a question of law.”


Under Washington law, tribal sovereign immunity protects tribal governmental corporations.




The case is Wright v. Colville Tribal Enter. Corp, No. 77558-3.




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