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Pueblo v. City of El Paso

United States District Court, W.D. Texas, El Paso Division

January 15, 2020

YSLETA DEL SUR PUEBLO, a federally recognized sovereign Indian tribe, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF EL PASO, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          DAVID C. GUADERRAMA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Presently before the Court is Defendant City of El Paso's ("City") "Motion for Summary Judgment" (ECF No. 56) ("City's Motion") and Plaintiff Ysleta del Sur Pueblo's ("Pueblo") "Motion for Summary Judgment" (ECF No. 57) ("Pueblo's Motion"). For the reasons that follow, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART the City's Motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo is a federally recognized Indian Tribe.[1] In May 2017, the Pueblo brought this declaratory judgment action, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1362, and 2201. It seeks judicial confirmation of the Pueblo's title to 111.73 acres of real property ("Property") encompassed by what is described as "the Ysleta Grant";[2] the Pueblo alleges that it is the owner of the Property under the 1751 Spanish Land Grant.[3] It also asks the Court to enjoin the City from claiming any estate, right, title, or interest in or to the Property.[4]

         On July 29, 2019, the City filed its instant motion for summary judgment. See City's Mot., ECF No. 56. That same day, the Pueblo also filed its instant motion for summary judgment. See Pueblo's Mot., ECF No. 57.

         II. DISCUSSION

         By its Motion, the City asserts that the Court should grant summary judgment in its favor because: (1) no dispute of facts exists regarding the absence of a 1751 Spanish Land Grant confirmed by a 1825 survey the Mexican government conducted; (2) the Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction because the 1751 Spanish Land Grant has not been confirmed by Congress; (3) the Pueblo's claim is barred by the doctrine of laches; and (4) the State of Texas is a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 19 required party which cannot be joined, and the resulting unavoidable prejudice to the State requires dismissal under Rule 19(b). City's Mot. at 3, 6, 19, 26.

         By its Motion, the Pueblo argues that the Court should grant summary judgment in its favor because: (1) the Pueblo had official legal status as a "Pueblo de Indios" under Spanish colonial law, which meant that Spanish colonial law afforded the Pueblo's lands full protection as to prohibiting Spanish settlement on Indian lands, its privatization, and its alienation or conveyance to non-Indians; and (2) the Indian Non-Intercourse Act applies to the Property it claims. Pueblo's Mot. at 2, 10.

         As a preliminary matter, the Court addresses the City's contention that the Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction to decide the Pueblo's claim on the merits. When dismissal is sought for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, the proper procedural form is a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss, not summary judgment. Stanley v. Cent. Intelligence Agency, 639 F.2d 1146, 1157 (5th Cir. 1981). Although the City filed a motion seeking summary judgment against the Pueblo, the Court construes the City's Motion as a motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and a motion for summary judgment in the alternative. See United States v. One 1988 Dodge Pickup, 959 F.2d 37, 39 (5th Cir. 1992) ("[I]t is clear that the proper characterization of the motion for these purposes is not determined by the label that the motion bears."); Med. Components, Inc. v. Osiris Med, Inc., 226 F.Supp.3d 753, 760 (W.D. Tex. 2016) (construing a motion for summary judgment as a motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction).

         "When considering a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss with a motion for summary judgment in the alternative, we must determine if subject matter jurisdiction is present before considering the substantive arguments of the summary judgment motion." Cupit v. United States, 964 F.Supp. 1104, 1106 (W.D. La. 1997) (citing Stanley, 639 F.2d at 1157). Thus, the Court will first address subject-matter jurisdiction in this case and will only consider the merits of both summary judgment motions if dismissal is unwarranted.

         A. Standard for Dismissal for Lack of Subject-Matter Jurisdiction

         "Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. They possess only that power authorized by Constitution and statute ...." Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Insurance Co., of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). But "[w]ithout jurisdiction!, ] the court cannot proceed at all in any cause." Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env., 523 U.S. 83, 94 (1998) (quoting Ex parte McCardle, 7 Wall. 506, 514 (1868)). Federal courts are under a mandatory duty to dismiss a suit over which it has no jurisdiction. Stanley, 639 F.2d at 1157 (internal citations omitted). A court may properly dismiss a case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction when the court lacks the statutory or constitutional power to adjudicate the case. Home Builders Ass'n of Mississippi, Inc. v. City of Madison, Miss., 143 F.3d 1006, 1010 (5th Cir. 1998).

         "In considering a challenge to subject matter jurisdiction, the district court is 'free to weigh the evidence and resolve factual disputes in order to satisfy itself that it has the power to hear the case.'" Flores v. Pompeo, 936 F.3d 273, 276 (5th Cir. 2019) (quoting Krim v. pcOrder.com, Inc., 402 F.3d 489, 494 (5th Cir. 2005)). A district court may dispose of a motion to dismiss or lack of subject matter jurisdiction based "on (1) the complaint alone; (2) the complaint supplemented by undisputed facts; or (3) the complaint supplemented by undisputed facts plus the court's resolution of disputed facts." Id. (quoting Robinson v. TCI/US W. Commc'ns Inc., 117 F.3d 900, 904 (5th Cir. 1997)).

         B. The Pueblo Asserts Federal Question Jurisdiction Under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1362

         The Pueblo asserts that the Court has subject-matter jurisdiction to consider its claim under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 for federal question jurisdiction and under 28 U.S.C. § 1362 for civil lawsuits brought by Indian tribes. Compl. ¶ 6. Both § 1331 and § 1362 contain identical "arising under" language. Compare 28 U.S.C. § 1331 ("The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States."") (emphasis added) with 28 U.S.C. § 1362 ("The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions, brought by any Indian tribe or band with a governing body recognized by the Secretary of the Interior, wherein the matter in controversy arises under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States") (emphasis added). Section 1362 was enacted when § 1331 had a monetary requirement, similar to that now found in 28 U.S.C. § 1332, and was intended to permit Indian tribes to proceed in federal court even when the jurisdictional amount could not be met:

The purpose of the proposed legislation is to provide that the district courts are to have original jurisdiction of all civil actions brought by Indian tribes or bands wherein the matter in controversy arises under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States. These civil actions would therefore be permitted without regard to the $10, 000 jurisdictional amount provided in section 1331(a) of title 28, when brought by an Indian tribe or band under the authority of the new section added by the bill.

H.R. Rep. 89-2040 as reprinted in 1966 U.S.C.C.A.N. 3145, 3146; see also Oneida Indian Nation of N.Y.State v. Oneida Cty., New York, 414 U.S. 661, 663 (1974) [hereinafter "Oneida I"] (noting the same); Ponca Tribe of Indians of Okla. v. Contl Carbon Co., 439 F.Supp.2d 1171, 1174-75 (W.D. Okla. 2006) (same). The Supreme Court has also noted that § 1362 may grant federal jurisdiction over a claim brought by an Indian tribe where the claim was one which the United States could have brought on the tribe's behalf. See Moe v. Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Flathead Reservation, 425 U.S. 463, 474 (1976) ("We think that the legislative history of § [l]362, though by no means dispositive, suggests than in certain respects tribes suing under this section were to be accorded treatment similar to that of the United States had it sued on their behalf.").

         At any rate, the statutory language and Supreme Court precedent indicate that § 1362 does not provide federal court jurisdiction to a claim merely because it is brought by a federally recognized Indian tribe. Ponca Tribe, 439 F.Supp.2d at 1174; Charrier v. Bell, 547 F.Supp. 580, 584 (M.D. La. 1982) ("Although the federal government has long had a special relation to the American Indian, the Congress has not provided for jurisdiction in the federal courts merely because an Indian Tribe is a party to the action."). Indeed, § 1362 will provide a jurisdictional basis for an Indian tribe's claims only if they satisfy the "arises under" requirement of § 1331. See Mescalero Apache Tribe v. Martinez, 519 F.2d 479, 483 (10th Cir. 1975) ("[Section] 1362 does not in our view dispense with the necessity of showing the presence of a federal question.... [I]n order for jurisdiction to attach under [§] 1362, the matter in controversy, and we emphasize that' phrase, must itself arise under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States."); Ponca Tribe, 439 F.Supp.2d at 1175. The Court now turns to whether the Pueblo's claim satisfies the "arises under" requirement of § 1331.

         I. Federal Question Jurisdiction

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, federal courts have federal question jurisdiction over any case that "arises under" the laws of the United States. Verlinden B. V. v. C. Bank of Nigeria, 461 U.S. 480, 494 (1983). "A federal question exists 'only in those cases in which a well-pleaded complaint establishes that either federal law creates the cause of action or that the plaintiffs right to relief necessarily depends on resolution of a substantial question of federal law.'" Singh v. Duane Morris LLP, 538 F.3d 334, 337 (5th Cir. 2008) (quoting Franchise Tax Bd. v. Constr. Laborers Vacation Tr., 463 U.S. 1, 27-28 (1983)). But "[w]hen a federal claim appears on the face of the complaint, 'dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction is only proper in the case of a frivolous or insubstantial claim, i.e., a claim which has no plausible foundation or which is clearly foreclosed by a prior Supreme Court decision.'" Young v. Hosemann, 598 F.3d 184, 188 (5th Cir. 2010) (quoting Bell v. Health-Mor, 549 F.2d 342, 344 (5th Cir. 1977)).

         The Pueblo invokes the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo[5] between the United States and Mexico after the Mexican War as the basis for its declaratory judgment suit. Compl. ¶ 6. The Pueblo pleaded that its asserted right to the Property derives from the 1751 Spanish Land Grant that is allegedly "recognized by federal law, and the laws of Spain and Mexico, and preserved by the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo." Id. Specifically, the Pueblo alleges that Article VIII of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed citizens within the affected areas, which at the time included the Pueblo, protection of their land titles upon the transfer of sovereign authority from Mexico to the United States. Id. ¶ 16. On that basis, the Pueblo asks the Court to enter declaratory judgment to confirm that it is and has been the rightful holder of title to the Property since the 1751 Spanish Land Grant-allegedly preserved by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo-and to declare that the City "ha[s] no estate, right, title or interest in or to the Property." Id. at 6.

         In its motion for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, the City argues that the Pueblo's allegation that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed the protection of Spanish land grants "overlooks the requirement of a confirmation or recognition of title by the United States." City's Mot. at 8. Further, the City contends that prior Supreme Court decisions make clear that Spanish and Mexican land grants that were not validly confirmed by Congress after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo are judicially unenforceable-and thus, foreclosed under federal law. Id. at 8-9; City's Resp. in Opp. at 13 (ECF No. 58).

         After due consideration, the Court is of the view that the Pueblo's claim does not raise a federal question because of two reasons: (1) the predicate cause of action for the Pueblo's declaratory judgment suit is based on state law, not federal law; and (2) the Pueblo's asserted right to the Property is not a federally derived right and does not involve a substantial federal issue. Further, even if a federal claim appears on the face of the Pueblo's Complaint, established Supreme Court precedent.has foreclosed the authority of federal courts to determine the validity of the Pueblo's claim to the land. The Court addresses its conclusions in that order.

         a. The Pueblo's Predicate Cause of Action for Declaratory Relief is ...


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