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Gustafson v. Poitra

United States District Court, D. North Dakota, Northwestern Division

September 24, 2014

Darrel & Janine Gustafson, d/b/a 1 Stop Market, Plaintiffs,
Linus Poitra and Raymond Poitra, Defendants.


DANIEL L. HOVLAND, District Judge.

Before the Court is a motion to dismiss filed by Defendants Linus Poitra and Raymond Poitra on October 17, 2012. See Docket No. 18. The Plaintiffs, Darrel and Janine Gustafson, filed a response in opposition to the motion on August 27, 2013. See Docket No. 23. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants the motion.


The parties involved in this dispute have been embroiled in continuous and senseless litigation for more than a decade. The various actions between the Gustafson and Poitra families include multiple tribal, state, and federal lawsuits. The Poitras are enrolled members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. The Gustafsons are not tribal members. Both parties are North Dakota residents. The Gustafsons own and operate the 1 Stop Market, a gas station and convenience store located on non-Indian owned fee land in Rolette County, North Dakota, and within the exterior boundaries of the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. The Gustafsons brought this action under the Declaratory Judgment Act seeking declaratory and injunctive relief regarding the litany of ongoing disputes and battles between themselves and the Poitras, and numerous tortious acts committed against them by the Poitras. Along with the complaint, the Gustafsons filed a motion for a temporary restraining order concerning the Poitra's alleged interference with the operation of the Gustafsons' business. It is the contention of the Gustafsons that the Poitras deliberately blocked an access road to 1 Stop Market by parking a large truck and dumping debris in the driveway, rendering it impassable.

On October 5, 2012, this Court granted the Gustafsons' motion for a temporary restraining order. See Docket No. 10. On October 17, 2012, the Defendants moved to dissolve the temporary restraining order and to dismiss the case on the basis that the Plaintiffs had failed to exhaust tribal court remedies. See Docket No. 18. On October 18, 2012, a show cause hearing was held to determine whether the temporary restraining order should become a preliminary injunction pursuant to Rule 65(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. That same day, the Court granted a preliminary injunction ordering the Poitras to remove all obstructions by the end of the following day, and enjoining them from interfering with the Gustafsons' property rights in any way. See Docket No. 20. The Court also ordered the Poitras' motion to dismiss be held in abeyance pending the outcome of a settlement conference. Multiple attempts to settle the matter have failed. The goal was to hopefully end the chaos, seek a peaceful resolution, and impress upon the parties the need to be civil in their dealings with others. Suffice it to say that common sense has been non-existent. Counsel for the Poitras was granted leave of Court to withdraw on September 11, 2013. See Docket No. 25. The Poitras have failed to retain new counsel and are acting pro se. A bench trial is scheduled for October 21, 2014.


In their motion, the Poitras ask the Court to dismiss the action based upon a failure of the Gustafsons to exhaust their tribal court remedies. It is well-established that principles of comity require that tribal court remedies be exhausted before a federal district court may consider granting relief in a civil case regarding tribal-related activities on reservation land. Krempel v. Prairie Island Indian Comty. , 125 F.3d 621, 622 (8th Cir. 1997) (citing Iowa Mut. Ins. Co. v. LaPlante, 480 U.S.

9 (1987); Nat'l Farmers Union Ins. Cos. v. Crow Tribe , 471 U.S. 845 (1985); Bruce H. Lien Co. v. Three Affiliated Tribes , 93 F.3d 1412 (8th Cir. 1996)). The Gustafsons acknowledge they have not exhausted their tribal court remedies but contend this matter fits within several well-recognized exceptions to the tribal exhaustion doctrine. Specifically, the Gustafsons contend exhaustion is not required because their "claims are not pending in tribal court, " exhaustion would be futile, and the assertion of tribal court jurisdiction is motivated by a desire to harass. See Docket No. 23, p.6.


A careful review of the motion, briefs, and complaint have caused the Court to question its jurisdiction over the matter. A federal court has a special obligation to consider whether it has subject matter jurisdiction in every case, and to raise the issue sua sponte when the court believes jurisdiction may be lacking. Hart v. United States , 630 F.3d 1085, 1089 (8th Cir. 2011). Federal courts have an independent obligation to ensure that jurisdiction is proper. This obligation may be exercised at any stage of the litigation. Plains Commerce Bank v. Long Family Land & Cattle Co. , 554 U.S. 316, 324 (2008).

It is well-established that federal courts are courts of limited rather than general jurisdiction. Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am. , 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). They possess only that power authorized by the United States Constitution and federal statute. Id . The mere fact that a case involves a tribal member, tribal property, or arises in Indian country does not provide a basis for federal jurisdiction. Cohen's Handbook of Federal Indian Law, § 7.04[1][a], at 611 (Nell Jessup Newton ed., 2012).

In their complaint, the Gustafsons contend federal question jurisdiction exists under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 "because the issue of tribal court jurisdiction over a person who is not a member of the tribe and owns fee land within the confines of an Indian reservation is a federal question." See Docket No. 1, ¶ IV. This is the only assertion of federal question jurisdiction in the complaint.[1] There is no question diversity jurisdiction is lacking as all the parties are North Dakota residents. In addition, while the action is brought pursuant to the Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. 2201, the Declaratory Judgment Act does not confer jurisdiction and is not an independent source of subject matter jurisdiction. 10 Federal Procedure, L.Ed. Declaratory Judgments § 23:39 (2007). Since the Declaratory Judgment Act does not confer jurisdiction, a federal question must appear on the face of a well-pleaded complaint. Id. at § 23:43.

It is well-established that federal courts have jurisdiction to determine whether an Indian tribe has the power to compel non-Indians to submit to the civil jurisdiction of a tribal court. Plains Commerce Bank , 554 U.S. at 324; Auto-Owners Ins. Co. , 495 F.3d at 1021. A federal court has jurisdiction to determine whether a tribal court has exceeded its jurisdictional limits because the question is one that must be answered by reference to federal law. Auto-Owners Ins. Co. , 495 F.3d at 1021.

In this case, the complaint makes no reference to a pending tribal court case relating to the Gustafsons' right to access their property. There is no allegation a tribal court has exceeded its jurisdiction or compelled the Gustafsons to submit to its jurisdiction. Nor has the tribal court been named as a defendant in this action. The Gustafsons admit this particular dispute is not the subject of any tribal court action. In their response to the Poitras' motion to dismiss they state "Plaintiffs' claims are not pending in tribal court." See Docket No. 23, p. 6. While the complaint makes vague references to "multiple tribal court ...

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