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Stanko v. Oglala Sioux Tribe

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

February 22, 2019

Rudy Butch Stanko Plaintiff - Appellant
Oglala Sioux Tribe, et al. Defendants - Appellees

          Submitted: October 17, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the District of South Dakota - Rapid City

          Before SMITH, Chief Judge, LOKEN and GRUENDER, Circuit Judges.


         Rudy Stanko, a non-Indian, filed this common law and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against the Oglala Sioux Tribe and various tribal officers, seeking damages for their violation of his constitutional and civil rights. The pro se complaint alleged that, while traveling on a federally-maintained highway on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, tribal officers arrested and detained him on an illegally issued warrant; took him to the Kyle Police Department jail instead of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Court; assaulted, battered, and placed him in isolation because he was a non-Indian; and stole $700 from his wallet. Stanko appeals the district court[1] order granting defendants' motion to dismiss all claims. We affirm the dismissal with prejudice of claims against the Tribe and the individual defendants acting in their official capacities because those claims are barred by the Tribe's sovereign immunity. We affirm the dismissal without prejudice of claims against defendants acting in their individual capacities on a different ground, failure to exhaust tribal court remedies.

         I. Claims Barred by Tribal Sovereign Immunity.

         "Indian tribes have long been recognized as possessing the common-law immunity from suit traditionally enjoyed by sovereign powers." Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez, 436 U.S. 49, 58 (1978); see Alltel Commc'ns, LLC v. DeJordy, 675 F.3d 1100, 1102 (8th Cir. 2012). The Oglala Sioux are a federally recognized tribe. See Indian Entities Recognized and Eligible to Receive Services from the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs, 83 Fed. Reg. 34, 863 (July 23, 2018). Thus, as a matter of federal law, the Tribe is subject to suit only if Congress has authorized the suit or the tribe has waived its immunity. Amerind Risk Mgmt. Corp. v. Malaterre, 633 F.3d 680, 685 (8th Cir. 2011).

         The district court properly rejected Stanko's contention that Congress expressly authorized § 1983 suits against Indian tribes. See Will v. Mich. Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 67 (1989) ("in enacting § 1983, Congress did not intend to override well-established immunities or defenses under the common law"); cf. Inyo County v. Paiute-Shoshone Indians, 538 U.S. 701, 709 (2003). Stanko made no showing that the Tribe has waived its sovereign immunity; indeed, the Tribe specifically reserved its right to assert sovereign immunity absent consent in 2001 and reaffirmed tribal immunity in 2015. OST Ord. No. 01-22; OST Ord. No. 15-16. On appeal, quoting an article by an eminent law professor, Stanko argues that "sovereign immunity is an anachronistic relic and the entire doctrine should be eliminated from American law." Erwin Chemerinsky, Against Sovereign Immunity, 53 Stan. L. Rev. 1201, 1201 (2001). Whatever the merits of this view, "it is too late in the day, and certainly beyond the competence of this court, to take issue with a doctrine so well-established." Alltel, 675 F.3d at 1106 (citation omitted).

         The district court properly dismissed Stanko's claims against individual tribal officers acting in their official capacities as also barred by the Tribe's sovereign immunity. "A suit against a governmental officer in his official capacity is the same as a suit against the entity of which the officer is an agent." McMillian v. Monroe County, 520 U.S. 781, 785 n.2 (1997) (cleaned up). "There is no reason to depart from these general rules in the context of tribal sovereign immunity." Lewis v. Clarke, 137 S.Ct. 1285, 1292 (2017).

         In his pro se Response to defendants' motion to dismiss, Stanko argued his complaint states a claim against defendants for violation of the Indian Civil Rights Act ("ICRA"), 25 U.S.C. § 1302. The district court did not address this contention; we conclude it is without merit. In § 1302, Congress exercised its "plenary authority to limit, modify or eliminate the powers of local self-government which the tribes otherwise possess . . . . by imposing certain restrictions upon tribal governments similar, but not identical, to those contained in the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment." Santa Clara, 436 U.S. at 56-57. However, because "Congress also intended to promote the well-established federal policy of furthering Indian self-government," the Court held there is no implied private right of action against tribal officers in federal court to remedy alleged ICRA violations, other than "the habeas corpus provisions of [25 U.S.C.] § 1303." Id. at 62, 70 (quotation omitted). Thus, Stanko's complaint did not state a claim under ICRA against any defendant.

         II. Individual Capacity Claims.

         Stanko's claims against tribal officers acting in their individual capacities are not barred by the Tribe's sovereign immunity. See Lewis, 137 S.Ct. at 1292-93. The district court dismissed those claims without prejudice because Stanko's "allegations fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). We review this issue de novo. Miller v. Redwood Toxicology Lab., Inc., 688 F.3d 928, 936 (8th Cir. 2012) (standard of review).

         Stanko's pro se complaint alleged that the individual defendants violated his Fourth Amendment, Eighth Amendment, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. It alleged the district court had subject matter and personal jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1343 (federal question and federal civil rights jurisdiction). Diversity of citizenship was not alleged. The district court ruled that these allegations failed to state a claim because "provisions of the Bill of Rights, as well as . . . the Fourteenth Amendment" do not "operate upon the powers of local self-government enjoyed by the tribes," quoting Santa Clara, 436 U.S. at 56, which in turn quoted Talton v. Mayes, 163 U.S. 376, 384 (1896). We disagree. These cases did not establish that tribal officers cannot be sued individually for violating the constitutional rights of non-Indians while on tribal lands. Non-Indian United States citizens do not shed their constitutional rights at an Indian reservation's border. Thus, the inquiry must focus on whether Stanko stated a plausible claim for violation of those rights that survives defendants' motion to dismiss these claims. "A non-frivolous claim of a [federal] right or remedy . . . is sufficient to invoke federal question jurisdiction." Weeks Constr., Inc. v. Oglala Sioux Hous. Auth., 797 F.2d 668, 672 (8th Cir. 1986).

         Stanko's pro se complaint described his claims as "a common law complaint and a complaint pursuant to 42 USC § 1983." The district court ruled (alternatively) that the complaint failed to state a § 1983 claim because it did not allege "that the Individual Tribal Defendants were acting under color of state law." See West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 49 (1988) ("acting under color of state law requires that the defendant in a § 1983 action have exercised power possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state ...

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