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George v. Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation

United States District Court, D. Arizona

August 29, 2019

Rosita George, Plaintiff,
Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Rosita George seeks judicial review of an administrative decision by Defendant Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation (“ONHIR”) denying her relocation benefits under the Navajo-Hopi Settlement Act. (Doc. 1.) The parties have filed cross motions for summary judgment. (Docs. 28, 32.) 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). For reasons stated below, Plaintiff's motion is denied and ONHIR's motion is granted.

         I. Background

         In 1882, a large reservation was established in Arizona for use by 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. The Act authorized the district court to partition the reservation and created ONHIR'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 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.

         Plaintiff was born on July 23, 1965 and was a legal resident of the HPL on December 22, 1974. (A.R. 162.) After graduating high school in 1985, Plaintiff moved in with her sister Lorena Tsinnijinnie. (Id.) While living with Lorena, Plaintiff was not responsible for her living expenses. (Id. at 107.) In June 1986, Plaintiff moved to an apartment in Flagstaff that she shared with a friend. (Id. at 163.)

         Plaintiff testified that from June 1985 until June 1986 she was employed by her brother-in-law, Donald Tsinnijinnie, selling Indian arts, including Kachina dolls and lamps. (Id. at 111, 162.) Plaintiff contends, without the support of any corroborating documentation, that she was paid $200-300 in cash every two weeks. (Id.) After leaving Donald's employ, Plaintiff was hired at Burger King, but quit after one shift, earning a total of $40.54. (Id. at 163.) Plaintiff then worked for Allstar Inn in Flagstaff, where she earned a total of $568.00. (Id.) Next, Plaintiff worked for Coconino County, earning $134.00 before July 7, 1986. (Id.) All told, Plaintiff's documented earnings from January 1, 1986 through July 7, 1986 were $742.62. (Id.)

         On October 21, 2009, ONHIR denied Plaintiff's application for relocation benefits, finding that she did not obtain head-of-household status during the relevant time period. (Id. at 51-52.) Plaintiff appealed the decision. (Id. at 58.) Cecelia Sands, Emilia George, and Plaintiff testified during an administrative hearing in August 2013.[1] (Id. at 99-133.) The Hearing Officer issued a decision in November 2013 affirming the denial of benefits, which became ONHIR's final decision in December 2013. (Id. at 161-68, 171.)

         II. Legal Standard

         A. Credibility Findings

         “When the decision of [a hearing officer] rests on a negative credibility evaluation, [he] must make findings on the record and must support those findings by pointing to substantial evidence on the record.” Ceguerra v. Sec. of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.2d 735, 738 (9th Cir. 1991) (citation omitted). An agency's “credibility findings are granted substantial deference by reviewing courts.” De Valle v. INS, 901 F.2d 787, 792 (9th Cir. 1990) (citations omitted). The hearing officer alone is “in a position to observe [a witness]'s tone and demeanor, to explore inconsistencies in testimony, and to apply workable and consistent standards in the evaluation of testimonial evidence. He is . . . uniquely qualified to decide whether [a witness's] testimony has about it the ring of truth.” Begay v. Office of Navajo & Hopi Indian Relocation, 305 F.Supp.3d 1040, 1049 (D. Ariz. 2018) (citing Sarvia-Quintanilla v. U.S. INS, 767 F.2d 1387, 1395 (9th Cir. 1985)).

         B. Summary Judgment

         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.

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.” Rive ...

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