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Rico v. Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 30, 2018

Sylvia Rico, et al., Plaintiffs,
Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation, an administrative agency of the United States, Defendant.



         Plaintiffs Sylvia Rico and Leroy Willie, as representatives of the estates of Edith Willie and Julia Willie, seek judicial review of the administrative decision by Defendant Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation (“ONHIR”) denying Plaintiffs' relocation benefits under the Navajo-Hopi Settlement Act. (Doc. 1.) Before the court is ONHIR's motion to dismiss or, alternatively, motion for remand, which is fully briefed. (Docs. 21, 26, 27.) The court heard oral argument on July 13, 2018.

         Following oral argument, Plaintiffs submitted a post-argument brief requesting the Court stay the matter if it decided to remand for further agency action.[1] (Doc. 38 at 2.) This matter also is fully briefed. (Doc. 39.) For reasons stated below, ONHIR's motion to remand is granted and Plaintiffs' post-argument motion to stay proceedings is denied.

         I. Background

         A. Navajo and Hopi Indian 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.[2] 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 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.

         In 1986, ONHIR closed the application process, and it remained closed to new applicants for nineteen years. See 51 Fed. Reg. 19169 (May 28, 1986). In 2005, acknowledging the number of late applications, ONHIR began accepting benefit applications from individuals who applied after the 1986 deadline or had not previously been informed of their eligibility. § 700.138. This district court later held that ONHIR's fiduciary duty to displaced tribe members before 1986 had included an affirmative duty to attempt to contact and inform potentially eligible individuals of their right to apply for benefits. Herbert v. ONHIR, No. 06-CV-3014-PCT-NVW, 2008 WL 11338896, at *1 (D. Ariz. Feb. 27, 2008).

         B. Factual and Procedural History

         In June 2005, Edith Willie and Julia Willie (both enrolled members of the Navajo Nation) applied separately for relocation benefits. (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 14-15, 27-28.) In December 2005, ONHIR denied both sisters' applications, finding that they “did not reside on HPL during the requisite period.” (¶¶ 29-30.) In December 2005, Edith Willie timely appealed ONHIR's decision. (¶ 31.) In January 2006, Julia Willie and her late husband Jim timely appealed ONHIR's decision. (¶ 32.) In April 2010, an independent hearing officer (“IHO”) held an appeal hearing. (¶ 37.)

         In August 2010, the IHO issued an opinion upholding ONHIR's denial, finding that the testimony of Edith Willie, Julia Willie, Sylvia Rico, and Leroy Willie was not credible. (¶¶ 48-49.) The IHO's ruling became ONHIR's final decision when ONHIR issued a Final Agency Action on July 18, 2011. (¶ 58.) Edith Willie passed away in 2014. (¶ 16.)

         On June 29, 2017, Sylvia Rico (as administrator of her mother Edith Willie's estate) and Julia Willie commenced this action for judicial review pursuant to 25 U.S.C. § 640d et seq. and the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”), 5 U.S.C. § 701 et. seq. (¶ 11.) On July 24, 2017, Julia Willie passed away. (Doc. 12.) On February 5, 2018, Leroy Willie moved for substitution of himself (as administrator of his mother Julia Willie's estate) as Plaintiff. (Doc. 23.) On February 16, 2018, the Court granted the motion. (Doc. 25.)

         On February 2, 2018, ONHIR moved pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) to dismiss the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction on the basis of both standing and mootness. (Doc. 21.) In the alternative, ONHIR sought remand of the case to the agency for further action. (Id.) In response, Plaintiffs opposed the motion to dismiss, but agreed that a remand would be proper pursuant to ONHIR's Management Manual § 1714.3. (Doc. 26.) At oral argument, the parties agreed that a remand to the agency would be proper given the change in circumstances surrounding Plaintiffs' applications.

         II. ...

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