Hamaatsa, Inc. v. Pueblo San Felipe

Decision Date16 June 2016
Docket NumberNO. S–1–SC–34287,S–1–SC–34287
Citation388 P.3d 977,2017 NMSC 007
Parties HAMAATSA, INC., a New Mexico not-for-profit corporation, Plaintiff–Respondent, v. PUEBLO OF SAN FELIPE, a federally recognized Indian tribe, Defendant–Petitioner.
CourtNew Mexico Supreme Court

Samuel D. Gollis, Attorney at Law, P.C., Samuel D. Gollis, Gwenellen P. Janov, Albuquerque, NM, for Petitioner.

The Simons Firm, L.L.P., Thomas A. Simons, IV, Faith Kalman Reyes, Santa Fe, NM, for Respondent.

Navajo Nation Department of Justice, Paul Spruhan, Assistant Attorney General, Window Rock, AZ, for Amicus Curiae, Navajo Nation.

Bergen Law Offices, L.L.C., Leander Bergen, Albuquerque, NM, for Amicus Curiae, Ohkay Owingeh.

Tammi M. Lambert, Laguna, NM, for Amicus Curiae, Pueblo of Laguna.

VanAmberg, Rogers, Yepa, Abeita, Gomez & Works, LLP, Carolyn J. Abeita, Albuquerque, NM, for Amicus Curiae, Pueblo de San Ildefonso.

Steffani A. Cochran, Chief General Counsel, Santa Fe, NM, for Amicus Curiae, Pueblo of Pojoaque.

Leger Law & Strategy, LLC, Teresa Isabel Leger, Cynthia Kiersnowski, Santa Fe, NM, for Amicus Curiae, Pueblo of Santo Domingo.

Maxine R. Velasquez, General Counsel, Santa Fe, NM, for Amicus Curiae, Pueblo of Tesuque.

John D. Wheeler & Associates, P.C., John D. Wheeler, Nelva Lena Cervantes, Arslanbek Sanjarovich Umarov, Alamogordo, NM, for Amicus Curiae, Mescalero Apache Tribe.

Rothstein, Donatelli, Hughes, Dahlstrom, Schoenburg & Bienvenu, L.L.P., Richard Warren Hughes, Santa Fe, NM, for Amicus Curiae, Picuris Pueblo.

Miller Stratvert, P.A., Richard L. Alvidrez, Albuquerque, NM, for Amicus Curiae, New Mexico Land Title Association.


VIGIL, Justice.


{1} The Pueblo of San Felipe (Pueblo) appeals from an opinion of the New Mexico Court of Appeals declining to extend the Pueblo, an Indian tribe, immunity from suit. Because it is settled federal law that sovereign Indian tribes enjoy immunity from suit in state and federal court—absent waiver or abrogation by Congresswe reverse the Court of Appeals with instructions for the district court to dismiss the suit for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.


{2} Hamaatsa, Inc. (Hamaatsa) is a non-profit New Mexico corporation that owns land in Sandoval County. Adjacent to Hamaatsa's property is land owned in fee by the Pueblo, a federally recognized Indian tribe organized under the Indian Reorganization Act, 25 U.S.C. § 476 (2012). The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) conveyed to the Pueblo, in fee simple, the land at issue on December 13, 2001. The property, albeit adjacent and contiguous with reservation land, is not yet held in trust by the federal government as part of the Pueblo's reservation. The United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), awaits resolution of the instant dispute prior to taking the fee-simple parcel into trust. Hamaatsa, Inc. v. Pueblo of San Felipe , 2013–NMCA–094, ¶ 11, n. 3, 310 P.3d 631, cert. granted , 2013–NMCERT–009, 311 P.3d 452 (No. 34,287, Sept. 20, 2013) (citing Hamaatsa, Inc. v. Sw. Reg'l Dir. , 55 IBIA 132, 132–33 (2012)).

{3} In its 2001 conveyance to the Pueblo, "the BLM reserved ‘an easement and right-of-way over, across, and upon a strip of land 40 feet wide along the existing road ... identified in NMNM 95818, for the full use as a road by the United States for public purposes.’ " Such roads are variously called "932 Roads" or "R.S. 2477 Roads,"1 and throughout this opinion we refer to the NMNM 95818 easement as "Northern R.S. 2477." On September 19, 2002, the BLM purported to quitclaim its interest in the Northern R.S. 2477 to the Pueblo. Access to Northern R.S. 2477 forms the basis of Hamaatsa's December 30, 2010, complaint against the Pueblo.

{4} Hamaatsa uses Northern R.S. 2477 on the Pueblo's property to access its land. In August 2009 Hamaatsa received a letter from the then Governor of the Pueblo stating that Hamaatsa had no legal right of access across the Pueblo's property and that Hamaatsa's use of Northern R.S. 2477 was a trespass. Hamaatsa continued to use the road and filed suit requesting that the district court declare that the Pueblo cannot so restrict Hamaatsa's use of the road.

{5} Specifically, Hamaatsa's complaint alleges that the land over which Northern R.S. 2477 traversed was owned by the BLM since at least 1906 and the road was constructed and used by the public from at least 1935 until the date of Hamaatsa's complaint. Further, Northern R.S. 2477 was used by Hamaatsa and its predecessors in interest to access its property, and has been a public road that vested in the public as a state highway under R.S. 2477 when it was not retained by the United States since at least 1935. Given the aforementioned quitclaim deed, the Pueblo argues that there is no public road across its property that Hamaatsa may lawfully access. The Pueblo further claims that Northern R.S. 2477 is but one point of access to Hamaatsa's property.

{6} The Pueblo filed a motion to dismiss Hamaatsa's complaint pursuant to Rule 1–012(B)(1) NMRA, asserting that its sovereign immunity deprived the district court of subject matter jurisdiction. After a hearing on the motion to dismiss the district court denied the Pueblo's motion, reasoning that the action was an in rem proceeding not seeking damages, to which sovereign immunity was no bar. The district court granted the Pueblo leave to seek an interlocutory appeal which was then granted by the Court of Appeals on July 5, 2011. The district court stayed all proceedings pending resolution of the appeal.

{7} By a July 23, 2013, opinion the Court of Appeals affirmed the district court. Hamaatsa, 2013–NMCA–094, ¶ 1, 310 P.3d 631. Though, seeing "no reason to address the issue of in rem versus in personam," the majority refused to recognize tribal sovereign immunity for different reasons. Id. ¶ 10. It instead focused on the fact that "the Pueblo offered no evidence of any property or governance interests whatsoever in the road or that the road, concededly a state public road, would threaten or otherwise affect its sovereignty." Id. ¶ 11. Noting further that the Pueblo did not present any proof that "a district court's declaration ... [that the road is public] would in any way undermine the Pueblo's sovereignty or sovereign authority, infringe on any right of the Pueblo to govern itself or control its internal relations, or otherwise adversely affect its governmental, property, or treasury interests," id. the Court of Appeals held that without such evidence there was "no justifiable basis on which the Pueblo can draw immunity from inherent sovereignty," id. ¶ 13.

{8} The Court of Appeals additionally held that "the issue in this case is a matter of state law, over which the district court has jurisdiction," id. ¶ 14, based on the fact that " [w]hether an easement—a public road at that—exists across land held in fee simple is clearly an issue of state law,’ " id . ¶ 14 (quoting Jicarilla Apache Tribe v. Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs , 1994–NMSC–104, ¶¶ 10–19, 118 N.M. 550, 883 P.2d 136 ) (alteration in original). The opinion reasoned that "to permit a sovereign immunity bar at this facial attack [Rule 1–012(B) ] stage of the proceedings would mean that, based on nothing more than the bare assertion of sovereign immunity," a pueblo could acquire land anywhere in New Mexico, subject to a public road, and "immediately deny the motoring public and all neighboring property owners access." Id . ¶ 16. The Court of Appeals went on to cite several United States Supreme Court cases it claimed imply that tribes should no longer be protected by sovereign immunity, including Oklahoma Tax Commission v. Citizen Band Potawatomi Indian Tribe of Oklahoma (Potawatomi I ), 498 U.S. 505, 514, 111 S.Ct. 905, 112 L.Ed.2d 1112 (1991) (Stevens, J., concurring) (stating that the "doctrine of sovereign immunity is founded upon an anachronistic fiction"), and Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma v. Manufacturing Technologies, Inc. , 523 U.S. 751, 757–58, 118 S.Ct. 1700, 140 L.Ed.2d 981 (1998) (providing that "[t]he rationale ... [for sovereign immunity] can be challenged as inapposite to modern, wide-ranging tribal enterprises extending well beyond traditional tribal customs and activities"). Hamaatsa , 2013–NMCA–094, ¶¶ 17–19, 310 P.3d 631. Ultimately, the majority of the Court of Appeals panel concluded that Kiowa "read fully, should stimulate analysts to reasonably view the case now before this Court as one beyond the periphery of immunity, requiring affirmance of the district court's denial of the Pueblo's motion to dismiss." Hamaatsa , 2013–NMCA–094, ¶ 19, 310 P.3d 631. The Court of Appeals did just that, affirming the district court's denial of the Pueblo's motion to dismiss. Id . ¶ 22.

{9} A dissenting view opined that the Pueblo's motion to dismiss should have been granted based on sovereign immunity. Id . ¶ 24 (Wechsler, J., dissenting). Apart from its analysis of the merits, the dissent disagreed with the majority's "discussion of: (1) Kiowa ..., (2) cases that do not involve tribal sovereign immunity, (3) the equities of the case, and (4) the timing of the Pueblo's motion." Hamaatsa , 2013–NMCA–094, ¶ 25, 310 P.3d 631 (Wechsler, J., dissenting).

{10} The dissent first noted that "tribal sovereign immunity is a matter of federal law and is not subject to diminution by the state." Id . ¶ 26 (Wechsler, J., dissenting) (citation omitted). It acknowledged that "there are issues concerning the scope of tribal sovereign immunity when tribes ... engage in activities that extend beyond the original purpose of the doctrine to safeguard tribal self-governance." Id. ¶ 27 (Wechsler, J., dissenting) (citation omitted). However, while the United States Supreme Court in Kiowa noted its misgivings toward the doctrine, the dissent noted that Kiowa nonetheless applied sovereign immunity. Hamaatsa , 2013–NMCA–094, ¶ 27, 310 P.3d 631 (Wechsler, J., dissenting) (citing Kiowa , 523 U.S. at 756–60, 118 S.Ct. 1700 ). And, because Kiowa applied sovereign immunity...

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