By Joe Sexton
A Kansas federal court’s decision further limiting the jurisdiction of tribal courts in the employment realm, is a decision that tribal governments operating commercial enterprises in Indian Country must read.
The federal district court held that there is no tribal court jurisdiction over a tribal casino employee’s ERISA claim based on the health care insurance benefits the tribe offered to casino employees.
The Sac & Fox Tribe had argued that the casino employee had failed to exhaust tribal court remedies before filing suit. The court specifically ruled that in enacting ERISA, Congress preempted tribal court authority when it extended concurrent jurisdiction over ERISA claims to both state and federal courts, yet did not extend that concurrent jurisdiction to tribal courts.
Rather predictably, among other case law on statutory pre-emption noted in the decision, the court relied heavily on the infamous Supreme Court decisions in Montana v. U.S. and Nevada v. Hicks.
As the court explained, tribes offering their government employees health care insurance benefits under “governmental plans” are exempted from regulation under ERISA. But the exception for “governmental plans” afforded under ERISA does not extend to employees performing commercial activities for tribal entities, like casino employees or the employees of any other tribally owned “commercial” enterprise.
Therefore, tribal governments may be held liable for claims brought under ERISA by employees working for tribal casinos or some other tribal government program that is not exempted under ERISA.
Yet, without the tribal court having a say as to those claims.
This ruling from Kansas limiting tribal court authority is likely a bellwether of how other federal courts will come down on ERISA claims in Indian Country. Tribes should take heed.
Joe Sexton is Of Counsel with Galanda Broadman, PLLC. Joe’s practice focuses on tribal sovereignty issues, including complex land and environmental issues, and economic development matters. He can be reached at (509) 910-8842 and firstname.lastname@example.org.