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Navajo Nation v. Rael

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

April 11, 2017

HONORABLE PEDRO G. RAEL, Judge, New Mexico Thirteenth Judicial District, and LEMUEL L. MARTINEZ, District Attorney, New Mexico Thirteenth Judicial District, Defendants.


         THIS MATTER comes before the Court upon Judge Rael's Amended Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, filed December 15, 2016 (Doc. 21); and Plaintiffs' Amended Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, filed January 18, 2017 (Doc. 25).[1] Having reviewed the parties' pleadings and the applicable law, the Court finds that Defendants' motion is well-taken and, therefore, is GRANTED. Plaintiffs' motion is accordingly DENIED. The Court finds that the Younger doctrine, which Defendants argue is applicable to this case, is not relevant to the circumstances of this case, but that the doctrine of collateral estoppel bars this Court from hearing this matter.


         Plaintiffs in this lawsuit contend that the New Mexico state court has no jurisdiction to hear a case brought against Curtis Bitsui, a Native American, in which he is alleged to have interfered with certain easements traversing a tract of land that he owns and which he considers to be Indian country. State of New Mexico v. Curtis Bitsui, Decision & Order, No: D1333-CV-2015-00228. Defendants in this case are the Honorable Pedro G. Rael (“Judge Rael”), the state court judge assigned to the underlying litigation and Lemuel Martinez, District Attorney for the New Mexico's Thirteenth Judicial District. Defendants contend that Judge Rael's finding that the state court has jurisdiction over the matter should not be declared void by this Court.

         I. Underlying State Court Case

         Curtis Bitsui (“Bitsui” or “Plaintiff”) is a member of the Navajo Nation, and resides upon an Indian allotment (“Allotment”) in which he holds a beneficial interest, near San Fidel, New Mexico. The patent for the Allotment was issued by the Director of the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) in 1953 by Patent #1137489 (“the Patent”) to the widow and heirs of Francisco Pieseto, an Indian. On December 16, 2015, the State of New Mexico, through its Thirteenth Judicial District Attorney (Defendant Martinez) brought a civil enforcement action against Bitsui seeking injunctive relief, alleging that Bitsui was interfering with the rights of the San Jose de la Cienega Community Association (“Community Association”) to the “acequia” (or ditch) that traverses the Allotment. (Ex. C to Initial Compl.) The patent issued by BLM on January 21, 1953 for the land in question reads as follows in relevant part:

. . . the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, . . . hereby declares that it does and will hold the land above described for the period of twenty-five years, in trust for the sole use and benefit of the said Widow and Heirs of Francisco Pieseto and to their heirs, according to the laws of the State where such land is located, and at the end of said period the United States will convey the same by patent to the said Widow and Heirs of of [sic] Francisco Pieseto in fee, discharged of said trust and free from all charges and encumbrances whatsoever, subject to any vested and accrued water rights for mining, agricultural manufacturing, or other purposes, and rights to ditches and reservoirs used in connection with such water rights, as may be recognized and acknowledged by the legal customs, laws and decisions of court; . . .[2]

         Plaintiff Bitsui (“Bitsui”) filed a Motion to Dismiss in the state court case alleging that the court had no subject matter jurisdiction over the claims made by the State because the Allotment is Indian country. See Doc. 2 at 2. He based his argument on 18 U.S.C. §1151, which defines “Indian country” as including “all Indian allotments . . . .” and thus when an “offense” is committed on Indian country, the United States has “sole and exclusive jurisdiction” pursuant to §1152. Bitsui argued that even though the term “Indian allotment” is not used in the U.S. Patent issued to his predecessors, the tract of land in question was nevertheless held by the United States in trust for the land owners pursuant to the Indian Homestead Act of July 4, 1884, which conferred homestead entry rights upon Native Americans. See U.S. v. Jackson, 50 S.Ct. 143, 144 (1930). In his motion, Bitsui also relied on a Bureau of Indian Affairs (“BIA”) Title Status Report issued on January 29, 2016 which purportedly states that the land at issue is in fact held in trust by the United States, which makes it an “allotment” and therefore “Indian country” and not subject to state court jurisdiction.

         In response to Bitsui's motion to dismiss, the State argued that the 1953 Patent was issued pursuant to the Stock-Raising Homestead Act rather than the Indian Homestead Act of 1884, and therefore the land underlying the acequia is not Indian country. The State also contended that the language of the Patent controlled rather than 18 U.S.C. §1151 or §1152, so that even if the Patent land was Indian country when granted in 1953, the express terms of the Patent permit state jurisdiction. Assuming there was a trust held by the United States for twenty-five years-during which time there was an “allotment” that qualified as “Indian country, ”-the trust ended in 1978 by operation of the deed itself, at which time Bitsui or his ancestors would be entitled to a patent without a trust, thereby subjecting the entire tract to state court jurisdiction.

         Judge Rael agreed with the State, finding that the matter was subject to the state court's jurisdiction because the Patent created a trust for a U.S. citizen (under the Stock-Raising Homestead Act) rather than specifically for a tribal member (under the Indian Homestead Act of 1884) because when Mr. Pieseto applied for a patent for the land parcel, he did so as a U.S. citizen and not as a tribal member. Ex. D to Initial Compl. (Decision & Order). Judge Rael found that even if the Patent created an Indian allotment, the trust and allotment both expired after twenty-five years and that the Patent reserved rights to the acequia that are enforceable in state court. Id. The language of the Patent also specifically stated that even during the time the patent language intended to reserve ownership and certain uses of the land for Bitsui and his ancestors “in trust, ” it was still subject to other uses existing at the time the deed was issued. These other uses would arguably include any easements by the Cienega Community Association. Because these other uses are not within the “trust” -and as a result could not be considered to be part of any “allotment”-both state and federal courts would have joint authority to determine which rights are within the trust and which are outside the trust. Finally, in his Decision and Order, Judge Rael rejected the BIA Title status report because of its inconsistent language regarding the “trust” nature of the land as well as the document's unofficial nature.

         II. Filing of Federal Action

         As trial approached in the state court case, Plaintiff Bitsui, joined by the Navajo Nation, filed this declaratory judgment action in federal court as well as a second motion to dismiss in state court.[3] Bitsui argued that the State had failed to join the United States as an indispensable party and renewed his argument that the state court lacked jurisdiction. Bitsui argued that the state court's conclusion that the patent expired was incorrect and that although the allotment was subject to rights-of-way, this did not change its status as Indian country. The State reiterated its former arguments to Bitsui's first motion to dismiss. Judge Rael denied Bitsui's second motion to dismiss, relying mainly on the Patent's express language and noting that Bitsui did not refute the State's factual history of the property and the Patent. Ex. B (to this motion).[4] Under Judge Rael's Order, Bitsui was enjoined from preventing acequia officials from entering the property to maintain the acequia where access was reasonably necessary to exercise the water rights in the acequia.

         Plaintiff Bitsui filed his Notice of Appeal in the New Mexico Court of Appeals on December 8, 2016.

         III. Legal Standard

         “A motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) is treated as a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6).” Atl. Richfield Co. v. Farm Credit Bank of Wichita, 226 F.3d 1138, 1160 (10th Cir.2000); accord Corder v. Lewis Palmer Sch. Dist. No. 38, 566 F.3d 1219, 1223-24 (10th Cir.2009). In considering a motion under Rule 12(b)(6), a court must determine whether the claimant has stated a claim upon which relief may be granted. A motion to dismiss is properly granted when a complaint provides no “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). A complaint must contain enough “facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face” and the factual allegations “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Id. (citations omitted). “Once a claim has been stated adequately, it may be supported by showing any set of facts consistent with the allegations in the complaint.” Id. at 562.


         The Court will address both parties' motions in this Memorandum Opinion and Order because this matter involves solely legal issues based on facts which the parties concede are undisputed. This case centers on questions of law-specifically, whether the Court should hear this case and if so, whether the state court has jurisdiction.

         I. Younger Abstention Doctrine

         Defendants contend that this Court should abstain from deciding this case, including the question of whether Judge Rael had jurisdiction over the underlying state court matter, under the Younger doctrine. In Younger v. Harris, the Supreme Court held that federal courts, except in the most exceptional circumstances, must dismiss suits for declaratory or injunctive relief against pending state criminal proceedings. 401 U.S. 401 U.S. 37, 53-54 (1971). The Supreme Court based this restraint on notions of comity and federalism, which require that federal courts respect state functions and the ...

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