El Paso Natural Gas Co. v. Neztsosie

Decision Date03 May 1999
Docket Number986
Citation119 S.Ct. 1430,526 U.S. 473,143 L.Ed.2d 635
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Justice Souter delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue is whether the judicially created doctrine of tribal court exhaustion, requiring a district court to stay its hand while a tribal court determines its own jurisdiction, should apply in this case, which if brought in a state court would be subject to removal. We think the exhaustion doctrine should not extend so far.


With the object of "encourag[ing] the private sector to become involved in the development of atomic energy for peaceful purposes," Duke Power Co. v. Carolina Environmental Study Group, Inc., 438 U.S. 59, 63 (1978), Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, 68 Stat. 919, a broad scheme of federal regulation and licensing. Because it "soon became apparent that profits from the private exploitation of atomic energy were uncertain and the accompanying risks substantial," Duke Power, supra, at 63, in 1957 Congress amended the AEA with the Price-Anderson Act, 71 Stat. 576. Price-Anderson provided certain federal licensees with a system of private insurance, Government indemnification, and limited liability for claims of "public liability," now defined generally as "any legal liability arising out of or resulting from a nuclear incident or precautionary evacuation ." 42 U.S.C. § 2014(w). The Act defines "nuclear incident" as "any occurrence . . . within the United States causing . . . bodily injury, sickness, disease, or death, or loss of or damage to property, or loss of use of property, arising out of or resulting from the radioactive, toxic, explosive, or other hazardous properties of source, special nuclear, or byproduct material . . . ." §2014(q).1

In the wake of the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, suits proliferated in state and federal courts, but because the accident was not an "extraordinary nuclear occurrence," within the meaning of the Act, see §2014(j), there was no mechanism for consolidating the claims in federal court. See S. Rep. No. 100 218, p. 13 (1987). Congress responded in 1988 by amending the Act to grant United States district courts original and removal jurisdiction over all "public liability actions," 102 Stat. 1076, 42 U.S.C. § 2210(n)(2), defined as suits "asserting public liability," §2014(hh), which "shall be deemed to be . . . action[s] arising under" §2210. The Act now provides the mechanics for consolidating such actions, §2210(n)(2), for managing them once consolidated, §2210(n)(3), and for distributing limited compensatory funds, §2210(o).

In 1995, respondents Laura and Arlinda Neztsosie, two members of the Navajo Nation, filed suit in the District Court of the Navajo Nation, Tuba City District, against petitioner El Paso Natural Gas Corporation and one of its subsidiaries, Rare Metals Corporation. The Neztsosies alleged that on the Navajo Nation Reservation, from 1950 to 1965, El Paso and Rare Metals operated open pit uranium mines, which collected water then used by the Neztsosies for a number of things, including drinking. The Neztsosies claimed that, as a result, they suffered severe injuries from exposure to radioactive and other hazardous materials, for which they sought compensatory and punitive damages under Navajo tort law. App. 18a 27a. In 1996, respondent Zonnie Richards, also a member of the Navajo Nation, brought suit for herself and her husband's estate in the District Court of the Navajo Nation, Kayenta District, against defendants including the Vanadium Corporation of America, predecessor by merger of petitioner Cyprus Foote Mineral Company. Richards raised Navajo tort law claims for wrongful death and loss of consortium arising from uranium mining and processing on the Navajo Nation Reservation by VCA and other defendants from the 1940's through the 1960's. 136 F.3d 610, 613 (CA9 1998); App. 39a 60a.

El Paso and Cyprus Foote each filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona, seeking to enjoin the Neztsosies and Richards from pursuing their claims in the Tribal Courts. The District Court, citing the tribal court exhaustion doctrine of National Farmers Union Ins. Cos. v. Crow Tribe, 471 U.S. 845 (1985), denied preliminary injunctions "except to the extent" that the Neztsosies and Richards sought relief in the Tribal Courts under the Price-Anderson Act. App. 71a, 73a. The practical consequences of those injunctions were left in the air, however, since the District Court declined to decide whether the Act applied to the claims brought by the Neztsosies and Richards, leaving those determinations to the Tribal Courts in the first instance. Id., at 71a, 73a. Both El Paso and Cyprus Foote appealed.

On the companies' consolidated appeals, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the District Court's decisions declining to enjoin the Neztsosies and Richards from pursuing non-Price-Anderson Act claims, as well as the decisions to allow the Tribal Courts to decide in the first instance whether the Neztsosies' and Richards's tribal claims fell within the ambit of the Price-Anderson Act. 136 F.3d, at 617, n. 4, 620. But the Court of Appeals did not rest there. Although neither the Neztsosies nor Richards had appealed the partial injunctions against them, the Ninth Circuit sua sponte addressed those District Court rulings, citing "important comity considerations involved." Id., at 615. The court reversed as to the injunctions, holding that the Act contains no "express jurisdictional prohibition" barring the tribal court from determining its jurisdiction over Price-Anderson Act claims. Id., at 617 620. Judge Kleinfeld dissented, concluding that the unappealed partial injunctions against litigating Price-Anderson Act claims in tribal court should be treated as law of the case, that all of the tribal-law claims were actually Price-Anderson Act claims, and that exhaustion was not required. Id., at 620 622. We granted certiorari, 525 U.S. ___ (1998), and now vacate and remand.


There is one matter preliminary to the principal issue. Because respondents did not appeal those portions of the District Court's orders enjoining them from pursuing Price-Anderson Act claims in Tribal Court, those injunctions were not properly before the Court of Appeals, which consequently erred in addressing them. We have repeatedly affirmed two linked principles governing the consequences of an appellee's failure to cross-appeal. Absent a cross-appeal, an appellee may "urge in support of a decree any matter appearing in the record, although his argument may involve an attack upon the reasoning of the lower court," but may not "attack the decree with a view either to enlarging his own rights thereunder or of lessening the rights of his adversary." United States v. American Railway Express Co., 265 U.S. 425, 435 (1924); see also Union Tool Co. v. Wilson, 259 U. S 107, 111 (1922). We recognized the latter limitation as early as 1796, see McDonough v. Dannery, 3 Dall. 188, 198, and more than 60 years ago we spoke of it as "inveterate and certain," Morley Constr. Co. v. Maryland Casualty Co., 300 U.S. 185, 191 (1937).

The Court of Appeals acknowledged the rule, but, in light of the natural temptation to dispose of the related questions of jurisdiction and exhaustion at one blow, still thought it could take up the unappealed portions of the District Court's orders sua sponte because "important comity considerations" were involved. 136 F.3d, at 615. The Court of Appeals apparently took the view, shared by a number of courts over the years, that the prohibition on modifying judgments in favor of a nonappealing party is a "rule of practice," subject to exceptions, not an unqualified limit on the power of appellate courts. Petitioners and the Government say the Court of Appeals was mistaken, seeing the rule as an unqualified bound on the jurisdiction of the courts of appeals. We need not decide the theoretical status of such a firmly entrenched rule,2 however, for even if it is not strictly jurisdictional (a point we do not resolve) the "comity considerations" invoked by the Court of Appeals to justify relaxing it are clearly inadequate to defeat the institutional interests in fair notice and repose that the rule advances. Indeed, in more than two centuries of repeatedly endorsing the cross-appeal requirement, not a single one of our holdings has ever recognized an exception to the rule.3

On the assumption that comity is not enough, respondents offer one additional justification for an exception to the cross-appeal requirement here. They point out that the District Court orders appealed from were preliminary injunctions and thus interlocutory, not final, decrees. Respondents contend that because they knew they could challenge the substance of those orders on appeal from a final judgment, they should not be penalized for failing to cross-appeal at this preliminary stage of the suit. But this argument misconceives the nature of the cross-appeal requirement. It is not there to penalize parties who fail to assert their rights, but is meant to protect institutional interests in the orderly functioning of the judicial system, by putting opposing parties and appellate courts on notice of the issues to be litigated and encouraging repose of those that are not. Fairness of notice does not turn on the interlocutory character of the orders at issue here, and while the interest in repose is somewhat diminished when a final appeal may yet raise the issue, it is still considerable owing to the indefinite duration of the injunctions. Preliminary injunctions are, after all, appealable as of right, see 28 U.S.C. § 1292(a)(1), and the timely filing requirements of Federal Rules of Appellate...

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