Tribe Immune From Age Bias Lawsuit in U.S. Court

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By Kevin McGowan

Oct. 18 — An American Indian tribe can’t be sued in federal court for age discrimination because it is immune from the U.S. court’s jurisdiction, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled ( Williams v. Poarch Band of Creek Indians , 2016 BL 346383, 11th Cir., No. 15-13552, 10/18/16 ).

The Poarch Band of Creek Indians has sovereign immunity from an Age Discrimination in Employment Act lawsuit filed by a former lab manager in the tribal health department who alleged she was fired and replaced by a younger worker because of her age, the appeals court said Oct. 18.

It affirmed a district court’s dismissal of Christine Williams’ federal lawsuit against the Alabama tribe.

The ruling is consistent with the conclusions of three other federal circuits that also have held American Indian tribes are immune from ADEA lawsuits.

Congress Didn’t Override Immunity

Lawsuits against American Indian tribes in U.S. courts are barred by sovereign immunity unless a plaintiff shows either that the tribe clearly waived its immunity or Congress expressly abrogated immunity, Judge C. Lynwood Smith Jr. wrote.

Since no evidence indicates the Poarch Band waived its immunity, Williams must prove that Congress abrogated the doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity when it enacted the ADEA, the court said.

The difference between Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which expressly says American Indian tribes aren’t employers under that law, and the ADEA, which doesn’t expressly exclude American Indian tribes from its definition of employer, shows Congress meant to override tribal immunity, Williams argued.

But Congress’ silence in the ADEA and its legislative history about tribes as employers falls short of the “clarion call” needed to overcome the presumption of tribal sovereign immunity, Smith wrote in an opinion joined by Judges Adalberto Jose Jordan and Ed Carnes.

“Indeed, one could just as easily conclude from the omission of any reference to Indian tribes in the text of the ADEA, related committee reports, or the floor statements of legislators during consideration of the act that Congress never considered the ADEA’s impact upon Indian tribes,” the court said.

Law Applies, Suit Foreclosed

The ADEA is a statute of “general applicability” and Congress didn’t exclude American Indian tribes from its reach, Williams said. The court should rule tribes therefore are subject to ADEA lawsuits in federal court, she argued.

But Eleventh Circuit precedent establishes an American Indian tribe may be covered by a federal law but nonetheless be immune from suit, the court said.

“Thus, even though the ADEA is a statute of general applicability, and the Poarch Band might be generally subject to its terms, the doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity protects the Poarch Band from suits under the statute,” the court said.

Wiggins Childs Pantazis Fisher & Goldfarb represented Williams. Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart PC and Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP represented the tribe.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kevin McGowan in Washington at kmcgowan@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com

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