Oneida Indian Nation of New York State v. County of Oneida, New York

Decision Date21 January 1974
Docket NumberNo. 72-851,72-851
Citation94 S.Ct. 772,414 U.S. 661,39 L.Ed.2d 73
PartiesThe ONEIDA INDIAN NATION OF NEW YORK STATE et al., Petitioners, v. The COUNTY OF ONEIDA, NEW YORK, et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Petitioners brought this action for the fair rental value for a specified period of certain land in New York that the Oneidas had ceded to the State in 1795, alleging, inter alia, that the Oneidas had owned and occupied the land from time immemorial to the time of the American Revolution; that in the 1780's and 1790's various treaties with the United States had confirmed their right to possession of the land until purchased by the United States; that in 1790 the treaties had been implemented by the Nonintercourse Act forbidding the conveyance of Indian lands without the United States' consent; and that the 1795 cession was without such consent and hence ineffective to terminate the Oneidas' right to possession under the treaties and applicable federal statutes. The District Court, ruling that the action arose under state law, dismissed the complaint for failure to raise a question arising under the laws of the United States within the meaning of either 28 U.S.C. § 1331 or 28 U.S.C. § 1362. The Court of Appeals, relying on the 'wellpleaded complaint rule' of Taylor v. Anderson, 234 U.S. 74, 34 S.Ct. 724, 58 L.Ed. 1218, affirmed and held that although the decision would ultimately depend on whether the 1795 cession complied with the Nonintercourse Act, and what the consequences would be if it did not, this alone did not establish 'arising under' jurisdiction because the federal issue was not one of the necessary elements of the complaint, which essentially sought relief based on the right to possession of real property. Held: The complaint states a controversy arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States sufficient to invoke the jurisdiction of the District Court under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1362. Pp. 666—682.

(a) Petitioners asserted a current right to possession conferred by federal law, wholly independent of state law, the threshold allegation required of such a well-pleaded complaint—the right to possession—being plainly enough alleged to be based on federal law so that the federal law issue did not arise solely in anticipation of a defense. Pp. 666, 677.

(b) Petitioners' claim of a federal right to possession governed wholly by federal law is not so insubstantial or devoid of merit as to preclude a federal controversy within the District Court's jurisdiction, regardless of how the federal issue is ultimately resolved. Pp. 666—667.

(c) Indian title is a matter of federal law and can be extinguished only with federal consent. Pp. 670—674.

(d) This is not a case where the underlying right or obligation arises only under state law and federal law is merely alleged as a barrier to its effectuation. Gully v. First National Bank, 299 U.S. 109, 57 S.Ct. 96, 81 L.Ed. 70, distinguished. Pp. 675—676.

(e) In sustaining the District Court's jurisdiction, the well-pleaded complaint rule of Taylor v. Anderson, supra, is not disturbed, since here the right to possession itself is claimed to arise under federal law in the first instance, and allegedly aboriginal title of an Indian tribe guaranteed by treaty and protected by statute has never been extinguished. P. 676.

(f) The complaint satisfies the requirement that it reveal a dispute or controversy respecting the validity, construction, or effect of a federal law, upon the determination of which the result depends. Pp. 677—678.

(g) The conclusion that this case arises under the laws of the United States comports with the language and legislative history of 25 U.S.C. § 233 granting to New York civil jurisdiction over disputes between Indians or between Indians and others. Pp. 678—682.

2 Cir., 464 F.2d 916, reversed and remanded.

George C. Shattuck, Syracuse, N.Y., for petitioners.

William L. Burke for respondent.

Jeremiah Jochnowitz, Albany, N.Y. for the State of New York, as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court.

Mr. Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Both § 1331 and § 1362 of Title 28 of the United States Code confer jurisdiction on the district courts to hear cases 'aris(ing) under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.'1 Section 1331 requires that the amount in controversy exceed $10,000. Under § 1362, Indian tribes may bring such suits without regard to the amount in controversy. The question now before us is whether the District Court had jurisdiction over this case under either of these sections.

I

The complaint was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York by the Oneida Indian Nation of New York State and the Oneida Indian Nation of Wisconsin against the Counties of Oneida and Madison in the State of New York.2 The complaint alleged that from time immemorial down to the time of the American Revolution the Oneidas had owned and occupied some six million acres of land in the State of New York. The complaint also alleged that in the 1780's and 1790's various treaties had been entered into between the Oneidas and the United States confirming the Indians' right to possession of their lands until purchased by the United States3 and that in 1790 the treaties had been implemented by federal statute the Nonintercourse Act, 1 Stat. 137, forbidding the conveyance of Indian lands without the consent of the United States. It was then alleged that in 1788 the Oneidas had ceded five million acres to the State of New York, 300,000 acres being withheld as a reservation, and that in 1795 a portion of these reserved lands was also ceded to the State. Assertedly, the 1795 cession was without the consent of the United States and hence ineffective to terminate the Indians' right to possession under the federal treaties and the applicable federal statutes. Also alleging that the 1795 cession was for an unconscionable and inadequate price and that portions of the premises were now in possession of and being used by the defendant counties, the complaint prayed for damages representing the fair rental value of the land for the period January 1, 1968, through December 31, 1969.

The District Court ruled that the cause of action, regardless of the label given it, was created under state law and required only allegations of the plaintiffs' possessory rights and the defendants' interference therewith. The possible necessity of interpreting a federal statute or treaties to resolve a potential defense was deemed insufficient to sustain federal-question jurisdiction. The complaint was accordingly dismissed for want of subject matter jurisdiction for failure of the complaint to raise a question arising under the laws of the United States within the meaning of either § 1331 or § 1362.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, with one judge dissenting, ruling that the jurisdictional claim 'shatters on the rock of the 'well-pleaded complaint' rule for determining federal question jurisdiction.' 464 F.2d 916, 918 (CA2 1972). Although '(d)ecision would ultimately turn on whether the deed of 1795 complied with what is now 25 U.S.C. § 177 and what the consequences would be if it did not,' id., at 919, this alone did not establish 'arising under' jurisdiction because the federal issue was not one of the necessary elements of the complaint, which was read as essentially seeking relief based on the right to possession of real property. The Court of Appeals thought Taylor v. Anderson, 234 U.S. 74, 34 S.Ct. 724, 58 L.Ed. 1218 (1914), directly in point. There, a complaint in ejectment did not state a claim arising under the laws of the United States even though it alleged that the defendants were claiming under a deed that was void under acts of Congress restraining the alienation of lands allotted to Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians. The Court applied the principle that whether a case arises under federal law for purposes of the jurisdictional statute 'must be determined from what necessarily appears in the plaintiff's statement of his own claim in the bill or declaration, unaided by anything alleged in anticipation of avoidance of defenses which it is thought the defendant may interpose.' Id., at 75—76, 34 S.Ct. at 724. Because the only essential allegations were plaintiffs' rights to possession, defendants' wrongful holding and the damage claim, the complaint did not properly assert a federal issue, however likely it might be that it would be relevant to or determinative of a defense. In the present case, noting that the District Judge was correct in holding that under New York law these allegations would suffice to state a cause of action in ejectment, the Court of Appeals considered Taylor to be dispositive.

Both the District Court and the Court of Appeals were in error, and we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

II

Accepting the premise of the Court of Appeals that the case was essentially a possessory action, we are of the view that the complaint asserted a current right to possession conferred by federal law, wholly independent of state law. The threshold allegation required of such a well-pleaded complaint—the right to possession—was plainly enough alleged to be based on federal law. The federal law issue, therefore, did not arise solely in anticipation of a defense. Moreover, we think that the basis for petitioners' assertion that they had a federal right to possession governed wholly by federal law cannot be said to be so insubstantial, implausible, foreclosed by prior decisions of this Court, or otherwise completely devoid of merit as not to involve a federal controversy within the jurisdiction of the District Court, whatever may be the ultimate resolution of the federal issues on the merits. See, e.g., The Fair v. Kohler Die & Specialty Co., 228 U.S. 22, 25, 33 S.Ct. 410, 411, 27 L.Ed. 716 (1913); Montana Catholic Missions v. Missoula County, 200 U.S. 118, 130, 26...

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