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Laughter v. Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation

United States District Court, D. Arizona

June 29, 2017

Helen Laughter, Plaintiff,
v.
Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation, an administrative agency of the United States, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Douglas L. Rayes, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Helen Laughter, a member of the Navajo Nation, seeks judicial review of an administrative decision by Defendant Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation (ONHIR) denying Plaintiff relocation benefits under the Navajo-Hopi Settlement Act. (Doc. 15.) Before the Court are the parties' motions for summary judgment. (Docs. 40, 45.) The motions are fully briefed, and neither side has requested oral argument. For reasons stated below, summary judgment is granted in favor of Defendant and its decision denying benefits is affirmed.

         BACKGROUND

         I. Navajo and Hopi Relocation Assistance

         In 1882, President Chester Arthur established a large reservation in northeastern Arizona for use by the Hopi Indians and "such other Indians as the Secretary of the Interior may see fit to settle thereon." Bedoni v. Navajo-Hopi Indian Relocation Comm'n, 878 F.2d 1119, 1121 (9th Cir. 1989). Navajo Indians migrated to much of the reservation and settled there alongside the Hopi. Id. In 1962, this district court found that the two tribes held joint, undivided interest in most of the reservation, which was called the "joint use area." Id. (citing Healing v. Jones, 210 F.Supp. 125 (D. Ariz. 1962)).

         Twelve years later, after establishment of the joint use area failed to solve intertribal conflicts over the land, Congress passed the Navajo-Hopi Settlement Act, 25 U.S.C. § 640d et seq. The Act, among other things, authorized the district court to make a final partition of the land after mediation efforts between the tribes had failed. See Sekaquaptewa v. MacDonald, 626 F.2d 113, 115 (9th Cir. 1980). The Act directed creation of the ONHIR's predecessor, the Navajo-Hopi Indian Relocation Commission, to provide services and benefits to help relocate residents who were located on lands allocated to the other tribe as a result of the court-ordered partition. See Bedoni, 878 F.2d at 1121-22; U.S.C. § 640d-11. The relocation services included personally interviewing, where possible, each head of household to determine relocation needs and to explain benefits (housing and moving expenses) for which the person might be eligible. 25 C.F.R. § 700.135.

         To be eligible for benefits, the applicable regulations and policy memo require a Navajo head of household to be a legal resident on December 22, 1974 of what became the Hopi Partitioned Lands (HPL). 25 C.F.R. §§ 700.97, 700.138, 700.147(a); Doc. 40-2; see Herbert v. ONHIR, No. 3:06-cv-03014-NVW (D. Ariz. Feb. 27, 2008) (Doc. 27). The burden of proving legal residence and head of household status is on the applicant. 25 C.F.R. § 700.147(b).

         II. Facts and Procedural History

         Plaintiff is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation who applied for relocation benefits in April 2005. (Doc. 17; AR 18-21) The application was denied six months later, in part because Plaintiff was found not to be a legal resident of the HPL as of December 22, 1974. (AR 69-71.) Plaintiff appealed, and a hearing before an independent hearing officer (IHO) was held in January 2011. (AR 73-77, 103-48.) Plaintiff, her father Joe Klain, and her sister Blanche Butler testified at the hearing.

         They explained that after moving from California to Arizona in 1971, they lived in a traditional mud-style hogan on top of Black Mesa, which became part of the HPL. Plaintiff's paternal grandmother lived in a similar hogan at the base of Black Mesa in Tonalea, which became Navajo Partitioned Lands (NPL). Plaintiff and her family ultimately resided in Tonalea near her grandmother after her father constructed a concrete block home on the property. Plaintiff and the other witnesses testified that the family was living at the Black Mesa site in December 1974 and did not move into the block home in Tonalea until the end of 1975. (AR 109, 114, 123, 132, 144.)

         The IHO denied Plaintiff's application for relocation benefits in a written decision issued April 18, 2011. (AR 174-80.) The IHO found the witnesses not credible as to years and dates, and concluded that based on residence histories provided by Plaintiff and her father during the application process and a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) enumeration roster showing that the family lived in the Tonalea block house in early 1975, Plaintiff had not met her burden of showing that she was a legal resident of the HPL as of December 22, 1974. (AR 177-79.) The IHO's ruling became Defendant's final decision when it affirmed the ruling on July 18, 2011. (AR 182). Plaintiff then commenced this action for judicial review pursuant to 25 U.S.C. § 640d-14(g) and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), 5 U.S.C. § 701 et. seq. (Docs. 1, 15.)[1]

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In reviewing a federal agency's decision under the APA, the district court applies a "narrow and deferential" standard of review. Mike v. ONHIR, No. CV-06-0866-PCT-EHC, 2008 WL 54920, at *1 (D. Ariz. Jan. 2, 2008). The court may reverse only if the decision "was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, not in accordance with law, or unsupported by substantial evidence." Bedoni, 878 F.2d at 1122 (citing 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A), (E)). "Substantial evidence means 'such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Mike, 2008 WL 54920, at *1 (quoting Info. Providers' Coalition for Defense of First Amendment v. FCC, 928 F.2d 866, 870 (9th Cir. 1991)). Under the arbitrary and capricious standard, the court must determine whether the agency's decision "was based on consideration of relevant factors and whether there has been a clear error of judgment." Id. (citing Nw. Motorcycle Ass'n v. U.S. Dep't of Agric., 18 F.2d 1468, 1471 (9th Cir. 1994)).

         Summary judgment generally is appropriate where "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Where the court reviews an agency decision under the APA, "the focal point should be the administrative record already in existence, not some new record made initially in the reviewing court." Camp v. Pitts, 411 U.S. 138, 142-43 (1973). Thus, when conducting "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.'" O'Daniel v. ...


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