The Navajo Nation v. United States Dep't of the Interior

Docket NumberCivil Action 16-cv-0011-TSC,17-cv-0513-TSC,17-cv-0863-TSC,18-cv-0774-TSC,19-cv-3612-TSC,20-cv-1297-TSC,21-cv-0013-TSC
Decision Date21 March 2022
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Columbia


In six consolidated cases (Navajo Nation II - VII) [1] Plaintiff Navajo Nation (“the Nation”) alleges that the Bureau of Indian Affairs (“BIA”), an agency within the United States Department of the Interior (DOI), violated the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, 25 U.S.C. § 450 et seq. (the “ISDEAA”), by partially declining the Nation's annual funding requests for operations of its Judicial Branch for the years 2015-2020. The Nation also alleges that the BIA unlawfully removed provisions from the Nation's 2019 and 2020 proposed Annual Funding Agreements (“AFAs”). The parties have each moved for summary judgment. Upon consideration of the parties' pleadings, and for the reasons set forth below, the court will GRANT IN PART and DENY IN PART the Nation's motion and will GRANT IN PART and DENY IN PART Defendants' cross-motion.

A. Statutory and Regulatory Background
1. Annual Funding

Congress enacted the ISDEAA in 1975 to empower Indian tribes with responsibility to administer federally funded programs that otherwise would be administered on their behalf by the federal government. 25 U.S.C. § 5301 et seq. Under the ISDEAA, tribes and federal agencies memorialize this transfer of authority by entering into a “self-determination contract.” See generally Id. § 5321(a)(1). The terms of the contract define its scope and duration. For example, some self-determination contracts run for an indefinite period. See 25 U.S.C. § 5324(c); Seneca Nation of Indians v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Hum. Servs., 945 F.Supp.2d 135, 136 (D.D.C. 2013). Others, such as those at issue in this case, are confined to a finite contractual period. See 25 U.S.C. § 5324(c). In the latter example, a tribe may submit a proposal to renew the self-determination contract, subject to the Secretary's review and approval in accordance with 25 U.S. Code § 5321.

Regardless of their length, self-determination contracts are funded one year at a time, through an annual negotiation process between the tribe and agency. See Id. §§ 5324(c), 5325(a). Subject to the agency secretary's annual approval, each AFA is incorporated into the self-determination contract. See Id. § 5329(c).

These six consolidated cases arise from the parties' 2012 self-determination contract, which ran from January 1, 2012, through December 31, 2016, and their renewed 2017 self-determination contract, which ran from January 1, 2017 through December 31, 2021. Specifically, the Nation's claims focus on two AFAs incorporated into the 2012 contract, the 2015 and 2016 AFAs, and four AFAs incorporated into the 2017 contract, the 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020 AFAs.

Each AFA must provide funds to a tribe at the same level that the agency “would have otherwise provided for the operation of the programs” if the agency had continued to provide the service itself. Id. § 5325(a)(1). This is commonly referred to as the “Secretarial amount, ” which equates to a funding floor. See Navajo Nation v. U.S. Dep't of Interior, 852 F.3d 1124, 1130 (D.C. Cir. 2017). There are five circumstances in which the agency may reduce funds below the Secretarial amount, see 25 U.S.C. § 5325(b), [2] and the parties agree that none of those exceptions apply here, see ECF No. 17, Pl.'s Mot. at 10; ECF No. 19, Defs.' Mot. and Opp'n at 2.

While an agency is restricted from dipping below the funding floor, it may agree to increase the Secretarial amount upon request from a tribal organization. See Navajo Nation, 852 F.3d at 1130 (“Secretarial amount is not immutable and can be increased by the Secretary”) (citation omitted); see also 25 U.S.C. § 5325(b)(5) (providing that the Secretarial amount “may, at the request of the tribal organization, be increased by the Secretary if necessary to carry out this [Act]); id. § 5324(c)(2) (“The amounts of such contracts may be renegotiated annually to reflect changed circumstances and factors, including, but not limited to, cost increases beyond the control of the tribal organization.”). The agency may also decline an annual proposal when the amount proposed exceeds the Secretarial amount. See 25 U.S.C. § 5321(a)(2)(D).

When a tribe submits a proposed AFA, “the Secretary shall, within ninety days after receipt of the proposal, approve the proposal and award the contract unless the Secretary provides written notification” to the tribe that the proposal is declined for one of five reasons provided by the statute, such as that the request exceeds the Secretarial amount. Id. § 5321(a)(2). If the agency declines a tribe's AFA, the agency must “state any objections in writing to the tribal organization.” Id. § 5321(b)(1). The agency may issue a partial declination that approves “a level of funding” at the Secretarial amount as part of the Secretary's power to approve any severable portion of a contract proposal. Id. § 5321(a)(4)(B). A proposal that is not declined within 90 days is “deemed approved” and incorporated into the contract. See 25 C.F.R. § 900.18.

DOI regulations further prohibit the BIA from declining a tribe's proposed AFA when it is “substantially the same as the prior annual funding agreement.” Id. § 900.32.

2. Contested Language in AFAs

The ISDEAA also establishes procedures for tribes and agencies to annually negotiate certain provisions of their self-determination contracts, beyond just funding levels. Self-determination contracts shall “contain, or incorporate by reference, the provisions of the model agreement described in subsection (c) of this section.” 25 U.S.C. § 5329(a)(1). That model agreement provides, among other things, that the “annual funding agreement under this Contract shall only contain . . . terms that identify the programs, services, functions, and activities to be performed or administered, the general budget category assigned, the funds to be provided, and the time and method of payment.” 25 U.S.C. § 5329(c) (Model Agreement § (f)(2)(A)). Under the model agreement, the only other provisions to be included in AFAs are those “to which the parties agree.” Id.

B. Navajo Nation I

These cases follow from Navajo Nation v. Dep't of Interior, et al., No. 1:14-cv-01909-TSC (D.D.C. Nov. 12, 2014) (Navajo Nation I), which involved a dispute over the amount of contract funding for the Nation's judicial system for 2014. In that case, the Nation sought $17, 055, 517 in their proposed 2014 AFA, an increase of $15, 762, 985 over the previous year's funding. On October 4, 2013, during a partial government shutdown caused by a lapse in congressional appropriations, the Nation hand-delivered its proposal to a receptionist at the Self-Determination Office in the BIA's Navajo Regional Office. Navajo Nation I, 852 F.3d at 1126. Due to the partial shutdown, several BIA employees were furloughed, including the BIA official “responsible for making award and declination decisions for Navajo Nation's contracts under the ISDEAA.” Id. On October 21, 2013-two business days after normal governmental operations resumed-the BIA sent a letter to the Nation acknowledging receipt of the proposal and stating that “due to the government shutdown, the BIA considered the proposal to have been received on October 17, 2013.” Id. at 1127. On November 7, 2013, the BIA sent the Nation another letter, this time noting its concerns about the substantial increase in proposed funds, asking the Nation to respond to the BIA's concerns by November 29, 2013, and stating that the BIA would “hold the approval” of the Proposal until the Nation submitted certain documents. Id. The Nation did not respond to either letter. Id.

On January 15, 2014, the BIA issued a partial declination approving approximately $1.3 million in funding and declining the Nation's request as to the additional $15, 762, 985. Id.

On November 12, 2014, the Nation filed Navajo Nation I to enforce its proposed AFA and receive the full funding that it had requested for 2014. See Navajo Nation I, No. 1:14-cv-01909-TSC, ECF No. 1 ¶ 1. The Nation argued that the 90-day clock for responding to its proposal began to run on October 4, 2013, the day it hand-delivered the proposal to the BIA's receptionist, and that the deadline for responding came and went on January 2, 2014 with no response. Id. ¶¶ 15, 17-20. The Nation contended that because the BIA's partial declination letter was submitted after the 90-day window had closed, the proposed AFA had been “deemed approved.” See Id. ¶¶ 17-21 (citing 25 C.F.R. § 900.18; 25 U.S.C. § 450(f)(a)(2)). The Nation sought declaratory and injunctive relief, and damages in the amount of $15, 762, 985. See Id. ¶ 1. The BIA argued that it was entitled to additional time because of the partial government shutdown, and that the Nation should be equitably estopped from asserting the January 2, 2014 deadline because of its silence in response to the BIA's October 21 and November 7 letters. Navajo Nation I, No. 1:14-cv-01909-TSC, ECF No. 18 at 22-27. The court granted the government's motion for summary judgment, holding that the Nation was equitably estopped from enforcing the January 2, 2014, deadline. Navajo Nation v. Dep't of the Interior, 174 F.Supp.3d 161, 171 (D.D.C. 2016), rev'd sub nom. Navajo Nation, 852 F.3d at 1124.

On appeal, the D.C. Circuit reversed, holding that equitable estoppel did not bar the Nation's claims, that the BIA received the Nation's proposal on the date it was hand-delivered, and that the BIA's...

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