June 18, 2012

Supreme Court Decides Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians v. Patchak

On June 18, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians v. Patchak et al., No. 11-246, holding that (1) the United States government does not have sovereign immunity from the suit under the Quiet Title Act where a plaintiff does not assert any right or interest in the title of the property; and (2) the landowner had prudential standing to challenge the Secretary of the Interior's acquisition of land in trust.

The Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians ("the Band") petitioned the Secretary of the Interior to acquire a property in Michigan known as "the Bradley Property" under the Indian Reorganization Act, 25 US.C. § 461 et seq. (IRA).  The Band intended to use the property to develop a casino. A local landowner, David Patchak, challenged the Secretary's decision to acquire the property under the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). Patchak asserted that the Band was not a federally recognized tribe when the IRA was enacted and the IRA thus did not authorize the Secretary to acquire the property.  To establish standing, Patchak cited his proximity to the Bradley property and his assertion that a casino would cause increased traffic and crime, decreased property values, an irreversible change in the rural character of the land, and other aesthetic, socioeconomic, and environmental problems. The District Court found that Patchak lacked prudential standing and dismissed the suit. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that determination and also held that sovereign immunity did not bar the suit under the Quiet Title Act (QTA).

The Supreme Court affirmed. The Court first addressed whether the United States's sovereign immunity barred Patchak's suit. The APA generally waives the federal government's immunity from a suit "seeking relief other than money damages and stating a claim that an agency or an officer or employee thereof acted or failed to act in an official capacity or under color of legal authority." The APA also contains "an important carve-out" in which the waiver does not apply "if any other statute that grants consent to suit expressly or impliedly forbids the relief which is sought." The government and the Band asserted that the QTA barred Patchak's suit. The QTA authorizes a quiet-title suit by a plaintiff asserting a "right, title, or interest" in real property that conflicts with a "right title or interest" claimed by the United States. The QTA, however, "does not apply to trust or restricted Indian lands." The Court concluded that the QTA did not "render the Government immune" from Patchak's suit because the suit "is not a quiet title action." Although Patchak contested the Secretary's title to the land, he did not "claim any competing interest in the Bradley Property." Although the QTA provides the exclusive means for "adverse claimants" to challenge the government's title to real property, Patchak was not an "adverse claimant" because he "does not contend that he owns the Bradley Property" and did not "seek any relief corresponding to such a claim." Thus, the APA's general waiver of the government's sovereign immunity applied. 

The Court also held that Patchak had standing to challenge the Secretary's decision. Under the APA, a plaintiff must not only comport with Article III's standing requirements but must also satisfy a prudential standing test in which the interests asserted must be "arguably within the zone of interests to be protected or regulated by the statute" that he claims was violated. The government and the Band asserted that Patchak lacked prudential standing because the statute he claims was violated—IRA § 465—focuses on "land acquisition, whereas Patchak's interests relate to the land's use as a casino." The Court rejected that argument, finding that § 465 plays a key role in the IRA's effort to "rehabilitate the Indian's economic life."  The Court reasoned that when the Secretary obtains land under the section, she "takes title to properties with at least one eye directed toward how tribes will use those lands to support economic development." The Department of the Interior's regulations also relate to how the land will be used. As a result, "decisions under the statute are closely enough and often enough entwined with considerations of land use" to make "immaterial" the distinction between land acquisition and land use. Patchak's interests thus satisfied the requirements for prudential standing.

Justice Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer and Alito joined.  Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion.

Download Opinion of the Court

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