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Begay v. Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation

United States District Court, D. Arizona

January 22, 2018

Larry K. Begay, Administrator of the Estate of Charles Begay, Plaintiff,
v.
Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation, an administrative agency of the United States, Defendant.

          ORDER

          James A. Teilborg Senior United States District Judge

         Pending before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 35) and Defendants' Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 37). The Court now rules on the motions.[1]

         I. BACKGROUND

         On March 4, 2017, Plaintiff filed the pending Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 35). Defendant then filed a Response and Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment on April 3, 2017 (Doc. 37). Plaintiff filed a Response to Defendant's Cross-Motion and Reply on May 3, 2017 (Doc. 39) and Defendant filed a Reply on May 16, 2017 (Doc. 41).[2] Here, Plaintiff alleges that the Independent Hearing Officer (“IHO”) erred in denying his claim for relocation assistant benefits provided by the Navajo-Hopi Settlement Act, Pub. L. 93-531, § 12, December 22, 1974, 88 Stat. 1716 (the “Settlement Act”).

         A. The Settlement Act

         The Settlement Act attempted to resolve an inter-tribal conflict between the Hopi and Navajo Indians by authorizing a court-ordered partition of land that was then-jointly held by the two tribes. See Bedoni v. Navajo-Hopi Indian Relocation Comm'n, 878 F.2d 1119, 1121-22 (9th Cir. 1989). The Settlement Act further created the predecessor to the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation (ONHIR) to provide services and benefits to relocate individuals who resided on land allocated to the other tribe at that time. See Laughter v. Office of Navajo & Hopi Indian Relocation, CV-16-08196-PCT-DLR, 2017 WL 2806841, at *1 (D. Ariz. June 29, 2017) (citing Id.). To be eligible for benefits under the Settlement Act, a Navajo applicant must prove that he was a legal resident of the Hopi Partitioned Land (“HPL”) as of December 22, 1974 and that he was the head of household at that time. See id. The applicant bears the burden of proving legal residence and head of household status. See id. (citing 25 C.F.R. § 700.147 (1986)).[3]

         B. Facts and Procedural History

         Plaintiff is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation who applied for relocation benefits under the Settlement Act on April 28, 2005. (Plaintiff's Statement of Facts in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment (“PSOF”), Doc. 36 at ¶¶ 1, 3; Defendant's Controverting Statement of Facts (“DCSOF”), Doc. 38 at at ¶¶ 1, 3; Certified Administrative Record (“CAR”) 23). The application was denied on October 11, 2005, in part, because Plaintiff was found not to be a legal resident of the HPL as of December 22, 1974. (PSOF at ¶¶ 4; DCSOF at ¶¶ 4; CAR 27). Plaintiff appealed, and a hearing before an IHO was held on February 22, 2008. (PSOF at ¶¶ 7; DCSOF at ¶¶ 7; CAR 35). On April 28, 2008, the IHO issued his decision denying Plaintiff's appeal and affirming Defendant's denial of benefits. (PSOF at ¶¶ 9; DCSOF at ¶¶ 9; CAR 37). Defendant, however, did not take final agency action on Plaintiff's application at that time. (PSOF at ¶¶ 13; DCSOF at ¶¶ 13; CAR 42).

         On January 6, 2010, Defendant notified the IHO that Plaintiff's case was being remanded for further proceedings due to Defendant's revision of its eligibility standards. (PSOF at ¶¶ 20; DCSOF at ¶¶ 20; CAR 47). Plaintiff conducted a field investigation of Plaintiff's land on June 24, 2015, the results of which Plaintiff later presented as evidence at his remand hearing on April 1, 2016. (PSOF at ¶¶ 22; DCSOF at ¶¶ 22; CAR 50, 53). Plaintiff, his sons, Larry and Nelson Begay, and his daughter-in-law, Raelene Begay testified at the remand hearing. (PSOF at ¶¶ 25; DCSOF at ¶¶ 25; CAR 53). There, Plaintiff argued that he maintained one homesite-Whitewater-located on Navajo Partitioned Land (“NPL”) and another-Old Branch-located on HPL as of December 22, 1974. (PSOF at ¶¶ 62; DCSOF at ¶¶ 62; CAR 53, 56). Plaintiff and his witnesses testified that Plaintiff planted a cornfield at Old Branch and resided there to some extent in the spring planting season, thus allegedly establishing the land as part of Plaintiff's residence as a “traditional use area” on HPL. (Id.). In opposition to Plaintiff's argument, Defendant presented undisputed evidence that Plaintiff was enumerated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (“BIA”) Roster only on the NPL at Whitewater and was not enumerated on the HPL at Old Branch. (PSOF at ¶¶ 30; DCSOF at ¶¶ 30; CAR 53).[4] Further, none of Plaintiff's claimed improvements to the land or his purported residence at Old Branch were documented in the BIA's enumerated improvements. (Id.).

         On May 20, 2016, the IHO issued his decision again denying Plaintiff's appeal on remand. (PSOF at ¶¶ 31; DCSOF at ¶¶ 31; CAR 56). In support of this conclusion, the IHO relied-at least in part-on the BIA enumeration and reasoned that BIA enumerators would have had to be “blind to their surroundings” to fail to identify Plaintiff's purported residence at Old Branch if there was one in use at the time of the enumeration. (PSOF at ¶¶ 31; DCSOF at ¶¶ 31; CAR 56). The IHO found that Plaintiff's testimony, which contradicted the BIA enumeration, had “limited” credibility because he failed to recall dates of certain events. (PSOF at ¶¶ 65; DCSOF at ¶¶ 65; CAR 56). The IHO also found that Larry and Nelson Begay's testimony “may be credible” and that Raelene Begay's testimony “lacked” credibility because she was not in the area in 1974. (Id.). Defendant issued its Notice of Final Agency Action on June 13, 2016, affirming the IHO's decision that Plaintiff was ineligible for benefits. (PSOF at ¶¶ 32; DCSOF at ¶¶ 32; CAR 57). Plaintiff then filed his Complaint on October 6, 2016 seeking judicial review of Defendant's administrative decision that he is not entitled to relocation benefits under the Settlement Act. (Doc. 1).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”) governs judicial review of agency decisions under the Settlement Act. Hopi Tribe v. Navajo Tribe, 46 F.3d 908, 914 (9th Cir. 1995). The APA provides that the Court may set aside an administrative agency's decision only if that decision was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, not in accordance with law, or unsupported by substantial evidence.” Bedoni v. Navajo-Hopi Relocation Comm'n, 878 F.2d 1119, 1122 (9th Cir. 1989) (citing 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A), (E) (1982); Walker v. NHIRC, 728 F.2d 1276, 1278 (9th Cir. 1984)). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Orteza v. Shalala, 50 F.3d 748, 749 (9th Cir. 1995). Under this standard, the Court applies a narrow and highly deferential standard of review:

To make this finding the [C]ourt must consider whether the decision was based on a consideration of the relevant factors and whether there has been a clear error of judgment. Although this inquiry into the facts is to be searching and careful, the ultimate standard of review is a narrow one. The [C]ourt is not empowered to substitute its judgment for that of the agency.

Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, Inc. v. Volpe, 401 U.S. 402, 416 (1971), abrogated on other grounds by Califano v. Sanders, 430 U.S. 99 (1977) (citations omitted).

         Unlike summary judgment in an original district court proceeding, the function of the Court in a review of an administrative proceeding “is to determine whether or not as a matter of law the evidence in the administrative record permitted the agency to make the decision it did.” Occidental Engineering Co. v. I.N.S., 753 F.2d 766, 769 (9th Cir. 1985). “Where evidence is susceptible of more than one rational interpretation, it is the [IHO's] conclusion which must be upheld; and in reaching his findings, the [IHO] is entitled to draw inferences logically flowing from the evidence.” Gallant v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 1450, 1453 (1984) (citations omitted). Ultimately, the Court must affirm if the agency ‚Äúconsidered the relevant factors and articulated a rational connection between the facts found and the choices ...


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