Gilham v. United States

Decision Date23 January 2023
Docket Number22-728L
PartiesMONTI PAVATEA GILHAM, Plaintiff, v. UNITED STATES, Defendant.
CourtU.S. Claims Court

Judd. M. Jensen, Browning, Kaleczyc, Berry & Hoven, P.C. Bozeman, MT, for the plaintiff.

Esosa Aimufua and Christopher Hair, Environment and Natural Resources Division, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington D.C., Dondrae Maiden, Brandon M. Porter, and Karen F. Boyd U.S. Department of the Interior, of counsel, for the defendant.


Richard A. Hertling Judge.

The plaintiff, Monti Pavatea Gilham, is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Indian Tribe. The plaintiff leased Indian trust land on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. The plaintiff enrolled her leased trust land under two contracts in the Conservation Reserve Program ("CRP"), a program administered by the Farm Service Agency ("FSA") within the United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA"). The CRP contracts were co-signed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs ("BIA") in its capacity as trustee of the tribal land. In the CRP, participants like the plaintiff are paid to maintain their land according to mutually-agreed conservation plans.

After placing her leased tribal land in the CRP, the plaintiff became a victim of severe physical domestic abuse. As a result of this abuse, the plaintiff alleges she was unable to perform the maintenance required by the CRP contracts. The plaintiff's CRP contracts were therefore terminated prematurely in November 2015. After the termination of her CRP contracts, the plaintiff sought and received equitable relief from the USDA from certain early-termination penalties. She was absolved from having to repay CRP fees previously paid to her under the CRP contracts. The BIA did not assist the plaintiff either in performing the required maintenance under the CRP contracts or in obtaining equitable relief from the USDA.

In June 2022, the plaintiff sued the United States, acting through the BIA, both for the BIA's failure to help the plaintiff perform the maintenance required under the CRP contracts and for its failure to help her obtain equitable relief from the USDA. The plaintiff alleges that the defendant's failures to assist her violated the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA"). The plaintiff also alleges that the defendant's failure to help perform the required maintenance breached the trust and fiduciary duties owed to the plaintiff, as a member of an enrolled tribe, pursuant to the CRP contracts co-signed by the BIA. The plaintiff seeks the unpaid funds she would have collected under the CRP contracts but for their early termination. The defendant moves to dismiss the complaint under Rule 12(b)(1) of the Rules of the Court of Federal Claims ("RCFC").

The defendant's motion is granted. The claims, as pleaded, do not rely on a money-mandating statute or regulation. Most of the plaintiff's claims are also untimely under the Tucker Act's six-year statute of limitations. Although the plaintiff's CRP contracts were terminated because she was unable to comply with the terms and conditions of those contracts due to severe mental and physical injuries she had suffered from domestic abuse, the plaintiff's plight, while prompting sympathy, cannot support the assertion of jurisdiction otherwise lacking under current law. Accordingly, the complaint must be dismissed.

A. Conservation Reserve Program

The CRP was established by the USDA pursuant to 16 U.S.C. §§ 3831-3835 and is governed by regulations set forth in 7 C.F.R. §§ 1410.1-1410.90. The CRP's purpose is "to conserve and improve the soil, water, and wildlife resources of such [enrolled] land and to address issues raised by State, regional, and national conservation initiatives." 16 U.S.C. § 3831(a). The FSA, the Commodity Credit Corporation, and FSA state and county committees help administer the program. 7 C.F.R. § 1410.1.

A "producer" may enroll eligible land in the CRP by contracting with the Commodity Credit Corporation. Id. at § 1410.3(a).[2] These contracts must be for 10-15 years and must be

signed by both "the producer" and "the owners" of the land. Id. at §§ 1410.7, 1410.32(d). The regulations specifically contemplate circumstances in which "an operator of eligible land seeks to participate without the owner's participation." Id. at § 1410.5(a)(1).

During the enrollment period, "[a] producer must obtain and adhere . . . to a conservation plan prepared in accordance with [Commodity Credit Corporation] guidelines and the other provisions of § 1410.22." Id. at § 1410.3(b). In return for their enrollment, a "participant" receives "annual rental payments" and "cost-share payments."[3] Id. at §§ 1410.2, 1410.40, 1410.42. If there are multiple participants, the annual rental payments are divided among them according to the terms of the CRP contract. Id. at § 1410.42(c). All participants in a CRP contract who "ha[ve] a share of the annual rental payment greater than zero" are "jointly and severally responsible" for compliance with a CRP contract's terms. Id. at § 1410.20(a)(9).

If a CRP contract is terminated prematurely, a participant forfeits the right to any further payments, and all payments made to a participant under the contract must be repaid with interest. Id. at §§ 1410.32(e)(2), 1410.52(b)(1). In such a case, a participant may also be liable for liquidated damages. Id. at §§ 1410.32(e)(2), 1410.52(b)(2).

B. Factual Allegations

The plaintiff is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Indian tribe. (ECF 1 at ¶ 7.) For generations members of her family have been farmers and ranchers on Cut Bank Creek, Montana. (Id.) After the plaintiff's father passed away, the plaintiff and her mother took over "the family's farming and ranching operation." (Id.) In September 2006, the plaintiff signed two CRP contracts. Each contract enrolled a parcel of tribal land in the CRP for a period of ten years beginning on October 1, 2007. (ECF 6-1, at 3, 6.) In 2015, for reasons not alleged in the complaint, the plaintiff signed two CRP contracts continuing the enrollment of the same land in the CRP through the original termination date of September 30, 2017. (Id. at 2, 7-8 (using the same "Farm Number," "Tract Number(s)," and "Acres For Enrollment" as listed on the earlier contracts).) The only apparent difference between the contracts signed in 2006 and 2017 is that the fields covered were broken up by acreage, and the contracts were assigned new numbers. (Id.)

Both sets of CRP contracts were signed by the plaintiff as a "100.00%" participant and a BIA representative as a "0.00%" participant. (Id. at 2-8; see also ECF 1 at ¶ 15 ("the United States had co-signed each contract at issue as a trustee").) The BIA representative's signatures were in the United States' official role as the trustee of Blackfeet tribal land. (ECF 1 at ¶ 9.)

The CRP contracts the plaintiff signed required, among other things, that "the participant . . . control . . . all weeds, insects, pests and other undesirable species to the extent necessary . . . and to provide such maintenance as necessary to avoid an adverse impact on surrounding land . . . ." (ECF 6-5 at 3.) The plaintiff maintained the trust land in accordance with the CRP contracts "for more than seven (7) years without serious incident." (ECF 1 at ¶ 8.) At no point relevant to the dispute, if ever, did the BIA provide any assistance in maintaining the land covered by the CRP contracts. (Id. at ¶¶ 4, 15-17, 20, 26-27.)

In 2013, the plaintiff began experiencing severe difficulties in her personal life when her husband became addicted to methamphetamine and abandoned the family. (Id. at ¶ 10.) This abandonment left the plaintiff "a single mother to [ ] minor children." (Id.) In 2014, the plaintiff lost her job. (Id.) The plaintiff then began a relationship with a local firefighter, who physically abused her. (Id.) The plaintiff's new boyfriend also limited the plaintiff's communications with family, friends, and the FSA. (Id.)

To escape this relationship, the plaintiff moved to Missoula, Montana in 2015, upon being accepted into a master's program with a full scholarship. (Id. at ¶¶ 10-11.) The plaintiff's abusive boyfriend, however, followed her to Missoula and forcibly moved in with her. (Id. at ¶ 11.) On October 31, 2015, the plaintiff's boyfriend attacked and strangled her, causing severe injuries that put her in the hospital and took weeks to heal. (Id.; ECF 7 at 6-7.) The police subsequently arrested the plaintiff's boyfriend. (ECF 1 at ¶ 11.) The plaintiff's injuries and emotional trauma caused her to withdraw from her master's program. (Id.) The plaintiff suffered from major anxiety attacks and depression and "battled suicidal thoughts." (Id. at ¶13.) As a result of these events and conditions, the plaintiff was unable to complete the required maintenance on the lands covered by her CRP contracts. (Id. at ¶¶ 12-14.)

During the summer and fall of 2015, the FSA mailed the plaintiff notices regarding the CRP maintenance. (Id. at ¶ 12.) The plaintiff did not receive these notices because she had failed to update her mailing information with the FSA after moving to Missoula, and no one was available to sign for the letters at her old address. (Id.) The plaintiff did receive an email from the FSA county office notifying her about the time-sensitive need to complete the CRP maintenance. (Id.) The plaintiff's abusive relationship and emotional trauma, however, prevented her from reacting or responding. (Id.) Because of the plaintiff's failure to perform the required maintenance, the FSA prematurely terminated the plaintiff's CRP contracts in November 2015, pursuant to a notice dated October 20, 2015. (ECF 6-3; see also ECF 1 at ¶¶ 8, 13.)[4]

Because the plaintiff's CRP...

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