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Begay v. Navajo

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 28, 2017

Jason Begay, Plaintiff,
Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation, Defendant.


          David G. Campbell, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Jason Begay, a member of the Navajo Nation, seeks judicial review of an administrative decision by Defendant Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation (“ONHIR”) denying him relocation benefits under the Navajo-Hopi Settlement Act. Doc. 1. The parties have filed cross motions for summary judgment. Docs. 36, 39. The motions are fully briefed, and oral argument will not aid the Court's decision. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 78(b); LRCiv 7.2(f). The Court will grant Plaintiff's motion and remand for further proceedings.[1]

         I. Background.

         President Chester A. Arthur set aside a 2.5 million acre reservation in Arizona in 1882 for the Hopi Nation 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). Members of the Navajo Nation subsequently settled on the reservation alongside the Hopi. Id. In the decades that followed, attempts to resolve inter-tribal conflicts ultimately resulted in the Navajo-Hopi Settlement Act in 1974. Id. This statute authorized the district court to partition the reservation and created Defendant's predecessor to help relocate Indians who resided on land partitioned to the other tribe. Id. at 1121-22.

         To be eligible for relocation benefits, a Navajo applicant bears the burden of demonstrating that he or she was (1) a legal resident of the Hopi Partitioned Lands (“HPL”) on December 22, 1974, and (2) a head of household on or before July 7, 1986. 25 C.F.R. § 700.147. A single applicant who was never married or a parent can qualify as a head of household only by demonstrating self-support. Id. § 700.69(a)(2).

         Plaintiff was born on December 16, 1965 (A.R. 137) and was a legal resident of the HPL on December 22, 1974 (A.R. 13). In 1980, Plaintiff moved to Richfield, Utah, where he worked and attended high school. A.R. 137. Plaintiff moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, in January 1984, where he lived with his brother until graduation from high school in May 1984. Id. Plaintiff then relocated to California, where he held part-time jobs at McDonalds and Jack-in-the-Box in the summer of 1984. A.R. 74, 138. Plaintiff secured a full-time job at a California computer company in November 1984. A.R. 138.

         Defendant's predecessor included Plaintiff in the relocation benefits it awarded to his mother, Mary Begay, on September 11, 1984. A.R. 27. Plaintiff separately applied for his own relocation benefits on March 9, 2009. A.R. 9. Defendant's application form called for Plaintiff to record his full-time - not part-time - employment history. A.R. 14. Plaintiff noted his full-time employment for the computer company, but did not mention his part-time employment for McDonalds or Jack-in-the-Box. See A.R. 14, 85-86. Contemporaneous notes from a May 2009 screening interview regarding Plaintiff's application reveal only one part-time job - a youth program at Richfield High School in 1983. A.R. 23; Doc. 36 at 8.

         Defendant denied Plaintiff's application on February 22, 2010, citing his failure to establish his status as a head of household before his mother's receipt of relocation benefits on September 11, 1984. A.R. 27. Because Plaintiff was included in the family's relocation benefits, Defendant reasoned that this was the last possible date he resided on the HPL. Id. Plaintiff was neither married nor a parent before September 11, 1984, so Plaintiff could qualify as a head of household only by demonstrating self-support, which requires that he earned at least $1, 300 per year. Id. His full-time employment for the computer company, which started in November 1984, could not establish self-support before September 11, 1984. See id.

         Plaintiff initiated an administrative appeal on March 18, 2010. A.R. 31-33. Before his appeal hearing, Plaintiff submitted a letter that described his part-time employment from January to May 1984 for a landscaping company in Salt Lake City. A.R. 60. Plaintiff explained that he worked 28 hours per week as a landscaper for his Mormon seminary teacher, Mark Staples. Id. Mr. Staples allegedly paid Plaintiff in cash, and neither Mr. Staples nor Plaintiff reported the wages to the Internal Revenue Service. A.R. 51-53, 82. Plaintiff's earnings from this part-time employment allegedly totaled $1, 840. A.R. 60.

         At an October 2010 hearing, the Hearing Officer heard testimony from Plaintiff; his mother, Mary Begay; his brother, Tully Begay; and his screening interviewer, Joseph Shelton. Mr. Staples was deceased. A.R. 73. Mary Begay testified that (1) Plaintiff was, for the most part, raised by his grandparents (A.R. 97); (2) Plaintiff worked for “the white man” while in high school (A.R. 95-96); and (3) she never visited Plaintiff in Utah (A.R. 99). Tully Begay testified that (1) Plaintiff lived with him from January to May 1984 while finishing his senior year of high school (A.R. 102); (2) Plaintiff worked for a landscaping company, which caused him to be gone “[m]ost of the time” (A.R. 102-04); and (3) he could not identify Mr. Staples, whom he had never met (A.R. 110-11). Mr. Shelton testified that he had no independent recollection of the screening interview, but that he took contemporaneous notes regarding the conversation. A.R. 112-13. Mr. Shelton gave inconsistent testimony about whether he would have noted the landscaping job. A.R. 113.

         The Hearing Officer issued a decision in January 2011 affirming the denial of relocation benefits (A.R. 142), which became Defendant's final decision in July 2011 (A.R. 144).

         II. Legal Standard.

         A reviewing court may reverse an ONHIR decision under the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”) if it is arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, contrary to law, or unsupported by substantial evidence. 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A), (E); see Bedoni, 878 F.2d at 1122. A decision 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.'” O'Keeffe's, Inc. v. U.S. Consumer Prod. Safety Comm'n, 92 F.3d 940, 942 (9th Cir. 1996) (quoting Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Ass'n v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 463 U.S. 29, 43 (1983)). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Chu v. Commodity Futures Trading Comm'n, 823 F.3d 1245, 1250 (9th Cir. 2016) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). This standard is deferential. The Court “may not substitute its judgment for that of the agency.” River Runners for Wilderness v. Martin, 593 F.3d 1064, 1070 (9th Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         “[S]ummary judgment is an appropriate mechanism for deciding the legal question of whether [ONHIR] could reasonably have found the facts as it did.” Laughter v. ONHIR, No. CV-16-08196-PCT-DLR, 2017 WL 2806841, at *2 (D. Ariz. June 29, 2017) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “[T]he focal point for judicial review [under the APA] 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 (1973). Summary judgment is proper if the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the ...

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