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Whitehair v. Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation

United States District Court, D. Arizona

December 6, 2018

Alvin Whitehair Plaintiff,
Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation, an Administrative Agency of the United States, Defendant.


          David G. Campbell Senior United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Alvin Whitehair, 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. 15, 16. 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 deny the motion and remand for further proceedings.

         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 intertribal conflicts ultimately resulted in the Navajo-Hopi Settlement Act in 1974. Id. The Act authorized the district court to partition the reservation and created Defendant's predecessor to help relocate tribal members who resided on land partitioned to the other tribe. Id. at 1121-22.

         To be eligible for relocation benefits, a Navajo applicant has the burden of showing that he 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. An unmarried applicant may prove his head-of-household status by demonstrating that he “actually maintained and supported” himself. 25 C.F.R. § 700.69(a)(2).

         Plaintiff was born on February 8, 1969 (A.R. 299) and was a legal resident of the HPL on December 22, 1974 (A.R. 131, 302). Plaintiff attended school through the eighth grade at Shonto Boarding School and then enrolled in Richfield Junior High School in Utah for ninth grade. Id. Plaintiff lived with a foster father, Reed Christensen, while attending school in Richfield. Id. At the end of ninth grade, Plaintiff returned to live with his parents on the Reservation. Id.

         When Plaintiff returned, he brought with him several candy vending machines he had obtained from Christensen and placed them at various locations. A.R. 299-300. Plaintiff testified that he placed 32 vending machines in the summer of 1985, and that he netted $30 per machine every two weeks. A.R. 300. Plaintiff testified that in 1985 and 1986 he had an income of $700-$1, 000 every two weeks from all the machines. Id. In the summer of 1985, Plaintiff also worked for the Forest Lake Chapter Summer Youth Program, where he earned $552. Id. In the summer of 1986, Plaintiff again worked for the youth program and earned $513. Id. Plaintiff ended his vending machine business and returned to Utah in the summer of 1986. Id. Around March 1986, Plaintiff began living at his parents' home on the Reservation with his girlfriend, Daisy, and they had their first child in November 1987. A.R. 300-01.

         On December 20, 2005, Defendant denied Plaintiff's application for relocation benefits, finding that he did not obtain head-of-household status. A.R. 60. Plaintiff appealed Defendant's decision on January 10, 2006. A.R. 71. At a September 2011 hearing, the Hearing Officer heard testimony from Plaintiff, Reed Christensen, Albert Whitehair, Plaintiff's brother, and Daisy Whitehair, Plaintiff's wife. A.R. 131-218. The only issue was whether Plaintiff had attained head-of-household status. A.R. 131. The Hearing Officer issued a decision in December 2011 affirming the denial of benefits (A.R. 303), which became Defendant's final decision in January 2012 (A.R. 308).

         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). The 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 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).

         III. Summary Judgment.

         Plaintiff argues for summary judgment in his favor because (1) the Hearing Officer's adverse credibility findings are unsupported; (2) substantial evidence does not support the Hearing Officer's finding that Plaintiff did not attain head-of-household status by July 7, 1986; and (3) the denial of benefits was unsupported by substantial evidence, arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law. Doc. 15 at 2-3.

         A. ...

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