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Benally v. Office of Navajo and Hopi Relocation

United States District Court, D. Arizona

February 10, 2014

Samuel Benally, Plaintiff,
Office of Navajo and Hopi Relocation, Defendant.


PAUL G. ROSENBLATT, District Judge.

Before the Court are the parties' motions for summary judgment. (Docs.14, 22). Plaintiff seeks relief from a denial of relocation assistance benefits by Defendant Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation ("ONHIR"). For the reasons set forth below, the Court will grant Defendant's motion for summary judgment and deny Plaintiff's motion.


Plaintiff is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation subject to relocation from his home on the Hopi Partitioned Lands ("HPL") as a consequence of the Navajo-Hopi Settlement Act, 25 U.S.C. §640d et seq. ONHIR is an independent federal agency created by Congress pursuant to carry out the relocation of members of the Navajo and Hopi Tribes who resided on land that was partitioned to the other tribe, and to provide relocation assistance benefits for all households required to relocate. Plaintiff and his family moved from HPL on August 9, 1983.

On March 12, 2009, Plaintiff applied for relocation benefits under 25 CFR § 700.138. (Doc. 8-1, Ex. 1.) The application was denied based on a finding that Plaintiff was "not a head of household" because he was not "self-supporting (earning $1, 300 per year or more)." ( Id., Ex. 4.)

Plaintiff filed an appeal and a hearing was held July 9, 2010. The Hearing Officer issued a decision on September 10, 2010, denying the appeal and finding that Plaintiff was a "dependent minor" at the age of 18 when his family moved from the HPL and had not attained head of household status prior to the move-off. (Doc. 8-3, Ex. 16.) Plaintiff submitted objections, which the Hearing Officer denied on April 8, 2011. ( Id., Ex. 20.) Plaintiff did not seek review, and on July 18, 2011, ONHIR issued its Final Agency Action affirming the Hearing Officer's decision. ( Id., Ex. 21.)

Standard of Review

Under the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA"), an aggrieved party may sue to set aside a final non-discretionary agency action that is arbitrary or capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law. See 5 U.S.C. § 702, 706(2)(A), (2)(E). "In reviewing agency action, the reviewing court can reverse only if the agency action was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, not in accordance with law, or unsupported by substantial evidence." Bedoni v. Navajo-Hopi Indian Relocation Com'n, 878 F.2d 1119, 1122 (9th Cir. 1989.) Where a court conducts judicial review pursuant to the APA, "summary judgment is an appropriate mechanism for deciding the legal question of whether the agency could reasonably have found the facts as it did." Occidental Engineering Co. v. Immigration and Naturalization Service, 753 F.2d 766, 770 (9th Cir. 1985).

An agency action is arbitrary and capricious "if the agency has relied on factors which Congress has not intended it to consider, entirely failed to consider an important aspect of the problem, offered an explanation for its decision that runs counter to the evidence before the agency, or is so implausible that it could not be ascribed to a difference in view or the product of agency expertise." Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Ass'n of U.S. v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 463 U.S. 29, 43 (1983). "The arbitrary and capricious standard is highly deferential, presuming the agency action to be valid and [requires] affirming the agency action if a reasonable basis exists for its decision.'" Kern County Farm Bureau v. Allen, 450 F.3d 1072, 1076 (9th Cir. 2006) (quotation omitted). Review under this standard is "exacting, yet limited." Id. The court "may not substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency." Id.


1. Head of Household

To be entitled to relocation benefits Plaintiff bore the burden of showing that he had attained "head of household status" by the time he and his family moved from HPL. 25 CFR § 700.147. To show he was a head of household, Plaintiff, who was neither married nor a parent at the time he moved form HPL, had to prove that he "actually maintained and supported himself." 25 CFR § 700.69(a)(2). To be considered self-supporting, ONHIR regulations required Plaintiff to establish that he earned $1, 300 per year in income.[1]

The Hearing Officer found that Plaintiff, who was born in 1965, was a student during the 1981-82 and 1982-83 school years, attending high school as a ninth grader in Snowflake, Arizona, living in the dormitory there and returning to his parents' home on weekends.[2] (Doc. 8-3, Ex. 16 at 2.) While in school, Plaintiff enrolled in an upholstery class and a woodworking class which met for one hour on school days. ( Id. at 2-3.) The school provided the materials for upholstery projects such as bags and jewelry boxes. ( Id. ).

Plaintiff sold some of the items he crafted at school, but he kept no records of what he sold or what his income was. ( Id. at 3.) In June and July of 1983 Plaintiff also worked on a fencing project on the San Carlos Indian Reservation, reportedly earning $75 a week and living with his sister. ( Id. ) He also worked in the Summer Youth Employment Program at a Navajo Chapter house for one month. ( Id. ) According to his Social Security earnings record, Plaintiff earned ...

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