Our Practice

Trust Responsibility

The firm frequently represents tribes in suits against the federal government for failure to honor its trust responsibility. Our work has resulted in settlements totaling several hundred million dollars for Tribes whose lands, mineral interests, and trust funds were mismanaged by the federal government. 

For example, in Shoshone Indian Tribe v. United States, 672 F.3d 1021 (Fed. Cir. 2012) and related cases, we represented the Tribe in recovering damages for the federal government's failure to properly lease Tribal lands for oil and gas, and for failing to collect the amounts due to the Tribe under those leases.  In the course of the case, we obtained favorable court rulings on key issues, including the measure of interest as part of damages, and overcoming a federal statute of limitations defense.  The Tribe was able to successfully resolve this case through a series of settlements. 

While our work on trust mismanagement claims has most often involved mismanagement of natural resources – including oil, gas, uranium, sand and gravel, grazing lands, and timber – we have also secured favorable outcomes in breach of trust claims involving other Tribal interests.  For example, in Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation v. United States, 964 F.2d 1102 (Fed. Cir. 1992), we successfully represented the Tribes in securing both past damages plus future annual payments for use of their lands to generate electric power a federal dam built in the 1930s.  The Tribes retained our Firm to appeal from an adverse trial court decision that had dismissed the claims on the ground that the United States’ constitutional power to regulate navigable waters excused it from payment of these damages to the Tribes.  We prevailed on appeal and the case was returned to the trial court for further proceedings.  At that point, we worked with the Tribes to successfully resolve this case by a settlement agreement which included legislation, under which the Tribes received a payment for past damages, as well as annual payments in perpetuity based on a share of the net revenues generated from the Dam.

In the course of our work, we have secured favorable court rulings that have established important precedents protecting tribal rights and interests.  Some of these decisions preserved tribal claims from being barred by statutes of limitations. See Shoshone Indian Tribe v. United States, 672 F.3d 1021 (Fed. Cir. 2012) (holding that where the United States allows oil and gas companies to extract resources under leases that did not comply with statutory requirements was a continuing trespass for the purposes of the statute of limitations); Samish Indian Tribe v. United States, 419 F.3d 1355 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (holding that the statute of limitations did not run against a tribal claim because the elements needed to bring a claim for damages had not yet accrued); Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation v. United States, 16 Ct. Fed. Cl. 158 (1989) (holding that the time periods which normally apply to bar damages claims against the United States do not apply where an accounting has not been provided to the Tribe).  These rulings allowed tribal claims to go forward.