Fourth Circuit Upholds Tribal Sovereignty by Ruling in Favor of Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians

Jul 3, 2019Litigation, NAFSA News, News, Tribal Sovereignty

In a ruling filed on July 3 by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in the case Williams et al v. Big Picture Loans, LLC et al, a three-judge panel ruled that Big Picture Loans and Ascension Technologies are indeed arms of the tribe and entitled to the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians’ tribal sovereign immunity.

“We hold that the district court erred in its determination that the Entities are not arms of the Tribe,” the 28-page opinion stated. “We therefore reverse the district court’s decision and remand the case with instructions to dismiss the complaint.”

The case was initially filed in June 2017, and was appealed by the Tribe after the district court’s ruling.

In a statement following the ruling, Lac Vieux Desert Chairman James Williams, Jr. hailed the decision as a major victory for the Tribe and for Native American sovereign rights, saying, “We could not be more pleased with the Fourth Circuit’s decision upholding our Tribe’s sovereignty and our Tribal businesses’ recognition as arms of the Tribe. By reversing the District Court, the Fourth Circuit’s ruling is a major victory for Native American sovereign rights across all of Indian country. The decision also provides welcome clarity to the standards used to evaluate tribal economic instrumentalities.”

“The Fourth Circuit has affirmed what we have known and argued all along: our businesses are sovereign arms of the Tribe and immune from Plaintiffs’ baseless claims,” Williams continued. “We hope that we can now put this issue to bed once and for all, allowing us to fully focus on the needs of our people.”

The decision also included several other key findings that will resonate across Indian country, including:

  • “One of the primary purposes underlying tribal immunity is the promotion of tribal self-governance, which counsels against courts demanding exacting information about the minutiae of a tribe’s budget.”
  • “While employment of tribe members may be an indication that an entity is contributing to a tribe’s self-governance or economic development, it is not required […] to weigh in favor of immunity.”
  • “…an entity’s decision to outsource management in and of itself does not itself weigh against tribal immunity…”
  • “… an entity’s entitlement to tribal immunity cannot and does not depend on a court’s evaluation of the respectability of the business in which a tribe has chosen to engage.”

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