Ute Tribe's 10th Circuit Jurisdictional Victories in Becker Litigation



Ft. Duchesne, UT August 30, 2017

On August 25, 2017, the Tenth Circuit issued two published opinions in favor of the Ute Indian Tribe, in related appeals stemming from legally and factually unsupported claims by former Ute Tribe employee Lynn Becker, and from Becker’s long-running attempt to avoid adjudication of claims in the Ute Tribe’s Court. In Becker v. Ute Tribe, D. Utah case 2:16-CV-00958-RJS, 10th Cir. case 16-4175 and Ute Indian Tribe v. Lawrence, D. Utah case 2:16-CV-00579-RJS, 10th Cir. case 16-4154, the Tenth Circuit held that the Federal District Court had wrongly applied the established federal legal rules narrowly limiting state court jurisdiction for on-Reservation actions and had misapplied rules which recognize that tribes have inherent sovereign authority to adjudicate complaints. While the Tenth Circuit decisions do not end the litigation, they should, taken together, lead to the Ute Tribe’s Court being the only Court with lawful authority to issue dispositive decisions on the claims between Becker and the Tribe.

Becker was an employee of the Tribe, who worked on the Tribe’s Reservation from March 2004 to October 2007. Many years after he left his employment with the Tribe, he claimed that, in addition to his annual salary of $200,000.00 as a tribal employee, the Ute Tribe owed him an additional $7.5 million dollars out of “net revenues” from oil/gas production on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. The Tribe has rejected his claim, and in addition, in its Tribal Court suit, the Tribe brought its own claims against Becker, asserting that Becker owes the Tribe more than $1.2 million dollars for, among other things, the value of seismic and other proprietary geo-mapping data that Becker took without permission when he left employment with the Tribe.

The Tribe denies Becker’s claims on multiple grounds, including:

  • Becker’s 2014 suit related to employment which ended in 2007 was not brought within the applicable three-year statute of limitations under Tribal law; and

  • Becker was paid all that he was owed; and

  • Becker failed to obtain a valid waiver of the Tribe’s sovereign immunity from suit because he failed to follow the requirements which are expressly set out in the Tribe’s Constitution and Law and Order Code (and which are also required by long-standing Ute Court interpretations of Tribal law); and

  • Because Becker’s claim is for tribal trust assets, he would have had to comply with additional federal and tribal laws, which have been in place for over 200 years and over 80 years, respectively. Those laws make it very difficult or impossible for a non- member to contract to receive tribal trust assets. Becker did not attempt to comply, did not comply, and could not have complied with, those laws protecting tribal trust assets.

The core issue in the Tenth Circuit appeals was whether the Tribal Court or State Court has authority to hear the claims stemming from Becker’s attempt to obtain tribal trust assets based upon his on-Reservation employment and from Becker’s violations of the Tribe’s Constitution and laws. In appeal 16-4175, the Tenth Circuit held that the District Court has wrongly enjoined the Tribe’s tribal court suit against Becker and that Becker is required to exhaust tribal court remedies.

In the other appeal, no. 16-4154, the Tribe had sought to enjoin Becker’s state court suit against the Tribe. The Federal District Court summarily dismissed the Tribe’s suit without enjoining the state court suit. The Tenth Circuit reversed, as it has had to do multiple times over the past two years. The Tenth Circuit instructed the District Court that the Utah federal courts have a legal obligation to protect the Ute courts from the State of Utah’s ongoing pattern of violating federally-imposed limitations on the state court jurisdiction over on-Reservation claims.

Both Tenth Circuit decisions employ language that strongly reaffirms both Indian tribal sovereignty and the fact that state courts lack jurisdiction over Indians for claims arising on an Indian reservation. For instance, the Tenth Circuit ruled in appeal no. 16-4154 that the federal courts’ equitable jurisdiction under federal law “has repeatedly been employed to police the boundaries between state and tribal authority.”

The Tenth Circuit also emphasized that the federal district court must issue a ruling on the Tribe’s request for an injunction to enjoin Becker’s lawsuit against the Tribe in state court, relying, in part, on the Tenth Circuit’s own earlier rulings in the Ute Tribe v. Utah case:

...more recently, in Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah & Ouray Reservation v. Utah [citation omitted]; and Wasatch Cty, Utah v. Ute Indian Tribe [full cite and citation omitted], we reversed the district court’s denial of a request for a preliminary injunction against a state prosecution and ordered the court to enter the injunction because the State was attempting to exercise criminal jurisdiction against an Indian for conduct on tribal lands. Although that case did not (as ours does) involve civil jurisdiction, no reason has been offered why that should matter. As we have already noted, Public Law 280 covers both criminal and civil jurisdiction.

The Tribe’s suit against Becker in the Ute Indian Tribal Court is ongoing, and under the Tenth Circuit’s decision that suit is expected to continue uninterrupted in that federal law requires the exhaustion of tribal court remedies.

The Tribe’s Business Committee collectively issued the following statement:

“We are grateful that the Tenth Circuit has, yet again, stopped the Utah District Court’s attempt to violate our Tribe’s sovereignty and jurisdiction. We hope in the future the District Court will reach the right decision the first time, but if not, we will continue to protect the Tribe’s rights through appeal.”

“Turning to the specifics of this case, we have been disappointed but of course not surprised that the Utah state courts are claiming they, not the Tribe’s people and the Tribe’s Court, will re-interpret the Tribe’s Constitution for the Tribe. The


Tribe’s Constitutional and prior tribal court decisions are clear, and Becker failed to comply with those provisions of tribal law. Just as the Tribe’s Court would never claim it is the final interpreter of Utah’s Constitution, the State Court should not be trying to reinterpret the Tribe’s Constitution to harm the Tribe and benefit the non- Indian. It is disrespectful and wrong. But, unfortunately, not unexpected.”

The Tribe’s Business Committee will continue to monitor Becker’s attempt to obtain revenues from the development of the Tribe’s trust assets and will continue to defend against Becker’s legal actions seeking unauthorized revenues through any, and all, legal processes.

About the Ute Indian Tribe-The Ute Indian Tribe resides on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in northeastern Utah. Three bands of Utes comprise the Ute Indian Tribe: the Whiteriver Band, the Uncompahgre Band and the Uintah Band. The Tribe has a membership of more than three thousand individuals, with over half living on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. The Ute Indian Tribe operates its own tribal government and oversees approximately 1.3 million acres of trust land which contains significant oil and gas deposits. The Tribal Business Committee is the governing council of the Tribe. 

Robert Lucero