Wilson v. Watt

Decision Date16 June 1983
Docket Number82-3414,Nos. 82-3364,s. 82-3364
Citation703 F.2d 395
PartiesEva WILSON, et al., and Association of Village Council Presidents, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. James G. WATT, Secretary of the Interior, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

Kathleen Strasbaugh, Alaska Legal Services Corp., Anchorage, Alaska, Bertram E. Hirsch, Floral Park, N.Y., for plaintiffs-appellants.

Maria Iizuka, Washington, D.C., for defendants-appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Alaska.

Before SKOPIL, PREGERSON, and FERGUSON, Circuit Judges.

SKOPIL, Circuit Judge:

Alaska Native tribal organizations and class plaintiffs appeal the district court's denial of a preliminary injunction against the termination by Bureau of Indian Affairs of the Snyder Act general assistance program in Alaska on two weeks notice. The Alaska Natives contend the district

court's assessment of the merits was based on erroneous legal and factual conclusions. We agree and reverse.


The Snyder Act of 1921, 25 U.S.C. Sec. 13 (1976), authorizes the Bureau of Indian Affairs ("BIA"), under the supervision of the Secretary of the Interior, to expend monies appropriated by Congress for the benefit, care and assistance of Indians throughout the United States for stated purposes, including general support, education and relief of distress. 1 See Morton v. Ruiz, 415 U.S. 199, 205-06, 94 S.Ct. 1055, 1059-60, 39 L.Ed.2d 270 (1974). The BIA regulations implementing the Snyder Act provide for the federal general assistance program at issue in this case. 25 C.F.R. Sec. 20.21 (1982). 2 The general assistance program is available to needy Indians, 25 C.F.R. Secs. 20.1(s), 20.20 (1982), who are ineligible for other federal assistance and who reside in states where comparable general assistance is not available or is not being provided to all residents on the same basis. 25 C.F.R. Sec. 20.21(b), (c) (1982).

Since 1939 the BIA has provided cash payment general assistance to Alaska Natives to meet basic living necessities. 3 At the time of these suits, approximately 3400 Alaska Natives were receiving general assistance as their only source of income directly from BIA or through tribal organizations contracting with BIA for administration of the funds pursuant to contracts authorized by the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. 4 See 25 U.S.C. Secs. 450-450n (1976); 25 C.F.R., Pt. 271 (1982).

Congress has funded the general assistance program in Alaska through Department of Interior appropriations acts which generally describe the programs to be funded and state the amount appropriated. Ruiz, 415 U.S. at 207, 94 S.Ct. at 1060. The appropriations act at issue here, Act of December 23, 1981, Pub.L. No. 97-100, 95 Stat. 1399, covered fiscal year 1982, October 1, 1981 through September 30, 1982. The Act specifically addresses appropriations to some Indian programs, but does not address programs for Alaska Natives.

In March 1982, BIA sent letters to all recipients terminating their general assistance as of April 1, 1982. Although the letters were dated March 5, they were not received until after March 15th. The letter stated purported congressional and presidential authority to terminate the program. It also said the State of Alaska had been notified of the termination and would probably

be able to provide assistance. The recipients received letters from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, dated March 24, 1982, describing the state's general relief assistance program. The letter stated that the State General Relief Assistance program is limited to emergency aid, provides substantially less aid than the federal program, and would not provide direct cash assistance. The letter also warned of delay in receiving aid because of the large number of anticipated applications.

A. Wilson v. Watt

On March 30, 1982 Wilson and other Alaska Natives brought a class action in the United States District Court of Alaska on behalf of all Alaska BIA general assistance recipients seeking declaratory, injunctive and mandamus relief against the termination of program. They asserted violations of the Administrative Procedure Act, the Snyder Act, BIA regulations, the fifth amendment, and trust relationship of the United States government to the Indians. The plaintiffs moved for a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction. On April 5 the district court filed its order denying the motions for the TRO and preliminary injunction, and on April 13 filed findings of fact and conclusions of law.

B. Association of Village Council Presidents v. Watt

On April 12, 1982 the Association of Village Council Presidents ("AVCP"), other tribal organizations, and individual Alaska Natives also filed a class action on behalf of all Alaska Native general assistance recipients in the District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking to prevent the termination of the program. These plaintiffs made the same claims as those in Wilson v. Watt. The tribal organization plaintiffs also asserted that funds for contracts entered pursuant to the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act were preserved by the 1982 Appropriations Act. The case was transferred to the Alaska District Court, and on May 11, 1982 that court denied appellant's motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction. The decision incorporates the findings in Wilson v. Watt. AVCP appealed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1292(a). This court consolidated the appeals. See Fed.R.App.P. 3(b). 5


The grant or denial of a preliminary injunction should be reversed only if the district court abused its discretion or based its decision on an erroneous legal standard or on clearly erroneous findings of fact. Beltran v. Myers, 677 F.2d 1317, 1319 (9th Cir.1982); Aleknagik Natives Ltd. v. Andrus, 648 F.2d 496, 501 (9th Cir.1980). Applying an incorrect legal standard for preliminary relief is an abuse of discretion, Wright v. Rushen, 642 F.2d 1129, 1132 (9th Cir.1981); Aguirre v. Chula-Vista Sanitary Service, 542 F.2d 779, 780-81 (9th Cir.1976). The district court also errs if, in applying the appropriate legal standards, the court misapprehends the law with respect to the underlying issues in litigation. Sports Form, Inc. v. United Press International, Inc., 686 F.2d 750, 752 (9th Cir.1982); Wright, 642 F.2d at 1132.

We conclude that the district court made erroneous findings of fact and misapprehended the law applicable to assessing the merits of Alaska Natives' claims. Accordingly, we state and apply the proper standard for preliminary relief. 6 See Aleknagik Natives, 648 F.2d at 502-04.


The moving party meets its burden by demonstrating either "a combination of probable success on the merits and the possibility of irreparable injury" or "that serious questions are raised and the balance of hardships tips sharply in its favor." Sports Form, 686 F.2d at 753. The principles are extremes of a single continuum. Benda v. Grand Lodge of the Int'l Ass'n of Machinists & Aerospace Workers, 584 F.2d 308, 315 (9th Cir.1978). The critical element is the relative hardship to the parties. If the balance of hardships tips decidedly toward the plaintiff, less likelihood of success on the merits is required. Id. Plaintiffs must show the "irreducible minimum" of some chance of success on the merits. Sports Form, 686 F.2d at 753.


Plaintiffs must show some injury in the first instance, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum v. National Football League, 634 F.2d 1197, 1201 (9th Cir.1980), and that the balance of hardships tips in their favor. Aleknagik Natives, 648 F.2d at 504. The Alaska Natives and tribal organizations have met this burden.

The district court made no express finding regarding the balance of hardships. The relevant findings of fact, however, which were largely uncontested, support our conclusion that the balance tips sharply in favor of the Alaska Natives. Approximately 3400 Alaska Natives received BIA general assistance as their sole income for living necessities. Many recipients received their assistance through BIA-AVCP contracts to administer the funds which were terminated without the procedure required by the BIA regulations. The district court concluded that "[t]he plaintiffs have the needs specified in their affidavits ...." and that BIA officials had no intention of continuing the general assistance program after April 1, 1982. The court also found that $1.7 million of the $4 million 1982 appropriation remained unspent.

Alaska did not have a comparable general assistance program. There is no indication in the record that such a program would be implemented by Alaska. Whatever aid Alaska could provide would not be available promptly or expeditiously. Since there were appropriated, unspent funds, hardship to the Bureau of Indian Affairs was minimal. On the other side, many Alaska Natives faced termination of general assistance on very short notice. The balance of hardships tips sharply in their favor.


The individual recipients assert Congress did not intend to terminate the general assistance program on April 1, 1982 unless Alaska had implemented a comparable program. The tribal organizations assert that the Appropriations Act expressly preserved funds for the AVCP-BIA contracts to administer general assistance until September 30, 1983. There is merit to both contentions and the district court erred in concluding plaintiffs had no chance of success.

A. Tribal Organization Contract Claims

Since 1977, AVCP and other Alaska tribal organizations have contracted with BIA for administration of general assistance funds to tribal communities pursuant to the authority of the Indian Self-Determination Ac...

To continue reading

Request your trial
38 cases
  • American Can Co. v. Mansukhani
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit
    • August 10, 1984
    ... ... Charles v. Carey, 627 F.2d 772, 776 (7th Cir.1980). See Wilson v. Watt, 703 F.2d 395, 398 (9th Cir.1983); LeBeau v. Spirito, 703 F.2d 639, 642 (1st Cir.1983). Similarly, a failure to observe the substantive or ... ...
  • Smith v. Heckler
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of California
    • June 6, 1984
    ... ... In Wilson v. Watt, 703 F.2d 395 (9th Cir.1983), the appellate court held that a likelihood of success on the merits is not necessary if hardship tips ... ...
  • Justice v. National Collegiate Athletic Ass'n
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Arizona
    • November 18, 1983
    ... ... at 315; Wilson v. Watt, 703 F.2d 395, 399 (9th Cir.1983). The "irreducible minimum," however, is that the moving party demonstrate "a fair chance of success on the ... ...
  • Sabelko v. City of Phoenix
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Arizona
    • February 11, 1994
    ... ... Wilson" v. Watt, 703 F.2d 395, 399 (9th Cir.1983); Beltran v. Meyers, 677 F.2d 1317, 1320 (9th Cir.1982) ...          DISCUSSION ...     \xC2" ... ...
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 books & journal articles
  • Indian Country and Inherent Tribal Authority: Will They Survive Ancsa?
    • United States
    • Duke University School of Law Alaska Law Review No. 14, January 1997
    • Invalid date
    ...[165] Oklahoma Tax Comm'n v. Citizen Band Potawatomi Indian Tribe of Okla., 498 U.S. 505, 511 (1991). [166]See generally Wilson v. Watt, 703 F.2d 395 (9th Cir. 1983); see also COHEN, supra note 16, at 766. [167] COHEN, supra note 16, at 766-67 (citations omitted). [168]See Venetie II, 101 F......

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT