April 26, 2011

Supreme Court Decides United States v. Tohono O'odham Nation

On April 26, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court decided United States v. Tohono O'odham Nation, No. 09-846, holding that under 28 U.S.C. § 1500, two suits are "for or in respect to" the same claim, precluding jurisdiction in the Court of Federal Claims (CFC), if they are based on substantially the same operative facts, regardless of the relief sought in each suit.

The Tohono O'odham Nation (Nation) filed a suit in Federal District Court against federal officials, alleging violations of fiduciary duty and requesting equitable relief. The Nation also filed a suit against the United States in the CFC, alleging almost identical violations and requesting money damages. The CFC dismissed the second suit pursuant to 28 U. S. C. §1500, which bars CFC jurisdiction over a claim if the plaintiff has another suit "for or in respect to" that claim pending against the United States or its agents in another court.  The Federal Circuit reversed, finding that the two suits were not "for or in respect to" the same claim under section 1500 because, although they shared operative facts, the two suits did not seek overlapping relief.

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded.  Addressing an issue it had reserved in Keene Corp. v. United States, 508 U. S. 200 (1993), the Court held that the term "for or in respect to" the same claim applies when the claims are "based on the same operative facts," regardless of the relief requested.  The Court looked to the original purpose of the statute, which was to save the government from the expense of redundant post-Civil-War litigation, and to the statutory language "for or in respect to," which it read to be broader than "for."  The Court also drew analogies to the claim similarity analysis in modern claim preclusion doctrine.  Turning to the specific claims in the Nation's two suits, the Court concluded that the suits involved the same operative facts and that the CFC therefore lacked jurisdiction.  The Court did, however, note several methods other than a simultaneous CFC action by which the Nation could seek both damages and injunctive relief based on the operative facts at issue. 

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito joined.  Justice Sotomayor filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Justice Breyer joined.  Justice Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion.  Justice Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.     

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