Federal District Court Issues Temporary Restraining Order to halt Utah State Court Trial in Becker V. Ute Indian Tribe Case

On Saturday, February 17, 2018 at approximately 6:13 p.m., the U. S. District Court for the District of Utah entered a temporary restraining order to enjoin Utah State Court Judge Barry G. Lawrence and Lynn D. Becker from proceeding in the matter of Becker v. Ute Indian Tribe, Case No. 140908394, Third Judicial District Court, Salt Lake County. The state court trial was scheduled to begin on February 26, 2018.

In 2016, the Ute Indian Tribe (Tribe) filed suit 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 and issued its mandate on November 29, 2017. As part of its ruling, the Tenth Circuit noted that “federal courts generally have jurisdiction to enjoin the exercise of state regulatory authority (which includes judicial action) contrary to federal law.” 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 cases:

...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.

On remand from the Tenth Circuit, the case was assigned to Judge Waddoups who sought briefing from the parties on supplemental jurisdiction. On January 31, 2018, after briefing and oral argument, Judge Waddoups entered an order declining to exercise jurisdiction over the Tribe’s request for declaratory relief and an injunction against the State Court Judge and Becker. The Tribe then sought expedited relief from the Tenth Circuit.

On February 16, 2018, the Tenth Circuit remanded the case back to the Federal District Court and directed it to exercise its original jurisdiction in accord with the Tenth Circuit’s earlier mandate and decide the Tribe’s request for injunctive relief against the state court proceedings.

The Tribe immediately filed an emergency motion with the Federal District Court seeking an injunction against the state court proceedings until the District Court has complied with the Tenth Circuit’s Order of 2/16/18. Shortly thereafter, Judge Waddoups entered an order stating he already ruled on the Tribe’s request and that he had denied the Tribe’s request for a preliminary injunction without prejudice for the reasons he stated in his 1/31/18 Order.

On Saturday, February 17, 2018, Judge Waddoups vacated the Order entered the previous day and stated the Court will issue a new order or notice once it further reviews the Tenth Circuit’s Order and the Tribe’s emergency motion. At approximately 6:13 p.m. on Saturday, February 17, 2018, Judge Waddoups granted a temporary restraining order against the State Court Judge and Becker from proceeding in the state case. Today, the State Court vacated all deadlines and struck the trial. A hearing will now be set in the Federal District Court to decide the Tribe’s request for a preliminary injunction

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 Tribe’s suit against Becker in the Ute Indian Tribal Court is proceeding after the Federal District Court, on February 14, 2018, denied Becker’s request to enjoin the Tribal Court case in the related case of Becker v. Ute Indian Tribe, D. Utah case 2:16-CV-00958.

The Tribe’s Business Committee will continue to oppose 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.