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Bahe v. Office of Navajo & Hopi Indian Relocation

United States District Court, D. Arizona

December 28, 2017

Hedy Bahe, Plaintiff,
Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation, Defendant.


          Douglas L. Rayes, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Hedy Bahe, on behalf of her deceased husband, Jerry Bahe, seeks judicial review of the administrative decision by Defendant Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation (ONHIR) denying Plaintiff relocation benefits under the Navajo-Hopi Settlement Act. (Doc. 1.) Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. (Docs. 18, 20.) The motions are fully briefed and neither side requested oral argument. (Docs. 24, 26.) For the reasons stated below, summary judgment is granted in favor of Defendant and its decision denying benefits is affirmed.


         I. Navajo and Hopi Relocation Assistance

         In 1882, a reservation was established in northeastern Arizona for the Hopi Nation and “such other Indians as the Secretary of 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. “The Hopi and Navajo [Nations] coexisted on the 1882 reservation for 75 years, but became entangled in a struggle as to which [nation] had a clear right to the reservation lands.” Id. In 1962, this district court found that the two tribes held joint, undivided interests in most of the reservation, which was called the “joint use area” (JUA). Id.

         Twelve years later, after establishment of the JUA failed to solve inter-tribal conflicts over the land, Congress passed the Navajo-Hopi Settlement Act in 1974. Id. The Act authorized the district court to make a final partition of the reservation after mediation efforts between the nations had failed. See Sekaquaptewa v. MacDonald, 626 F.2d 113, 115 (9th Cir. 1980.) The Act also directed creation of the ONHIR's predecessor, the Navajo-Hopi Relocation Commission, to provide services and benefits to help relocate residents who were located on lands allocated to the other nation as a result of the court-ordered partition. See Bedoni, 878 F.2d at 1121-22; 25 U.S.C. § 640d-11. To be eligible for relocation benefits, a Navajo applicant bears the burden of demonstrating that he or she was (1) a legal resident on 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.

         II. Facts and Procedural History

         In May 2005, Jerry Bahe, a member of the Navajo Nation, applied for relocation benefits. (A.R. 19-22.) In October 2005, ONHIR denied Bahe's application, finding that he “did not reside on [HPL] on December 22, 1974.” (Id. at 24-26.) In November 2005, Bahe timely appealed ONHIR's decision. (Id. at 35.) Bahe died in 2006, after which Plaintiff continued to pursue the claim pursuant to ONHIR's surviving spouse policy. An independent hearing officer (IHO) held an appeal hearing in November 2010, at which Plaintiff, an ONHIR investigator, and other witnesses testified. (Id. at 52-86.)

         In February 2011, the IHO issued a written opinion upholding the ONHIR's denial, finding that “[t]he greater weight of evidence shows that, on December 22, 1974, [Jerry Bahe] was a legal resident of Jeddito Island, an area which was later partitioned for the use of the Navajo [Nation].” (Id. at 106-07.) The IHO's ruling became Defendant's final decision when it affirmed the ruling on July 18, 2011. (Id. at 111.) 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, 18.)


         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). A reviewing court may reverse an ONHIR decision under the 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. “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 Def. of First Amendment v. FCC, 928 F.2d 866, 870 (9th Cir. 1991)). Under the arbitrary and capricious standard, courts 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 is proper if the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, 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 [by] 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 [ONHIR] could reasonably have found the facts as it did.'” O'Daniel v. ONHIR, No. 07-354-PCT-MHM, 2008 WL 4277899, at *3 (D. Ariz. Sept. 18, 2008) (citing Occidental Eng'g Co. v. INS, 753 F.2d 766, 770 (9th Cir. 1985)).


         On appeal, Plaintiff makes four arguments: (1) the IHO applied an incorrect legal standard when assessing whether Plaintiff was a resident of HPL at the time of the statutory cut-off date; (2) even if the IHO applied the correct legal standard, his decision is not supported by substantial evidence; (3) the IHO's credibility findings are arbitrary and capricious; and (4) the ONHIR breached its fiduciary duty to Plaintiff. The Court addresses each in turn.

         I. The IHO Applied the Proper Legal Standard for Determining Residence

         To be eligible for relocation assistance benefits, agency regulations require that applicants prove their timely residency on HPL. § 700.147 (“The burden of proving residence . . . is on the applicant.”). Plaintiff argues that in determining legal residence courts must apply the same standards used in determining domicile for purposes of diversity jurisdiction because legal residence and domicile are functionally equivalent. (Doc. 18 at 4-12.) As part of this argument, Plaintiff asserts that once a plaintiff has established her domicile on HPL the burden shifts to Defendant who, in order to deny benefits, must demonstrate the plaintiff changed her legal residency prior to ...

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