Nugent v. Seven Clans Casino

Nugent v. Seven Clans Casino, No. WC13-5649 (June 17, 2014)

The employee brought suit after allegedly sustaining an injury while employed by Seven Clans Casino, which is wholly owned and operated by the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, a federally recognized Indian tribe.  The employee was not a tribe member and the tribe had established a Tribal Workers’ Compensation Plan as the sole remedy for work injuries.

The tribe filed a motion to dismiss. A compensation judge found the tribe had sovereign immunity, the tribe had not waived that immunity, and that the State of Minnesota lacked jurisdiction to enforce its workers’ compensation act against the tribe.  Therefore, the dispute could not be heard by a Minnesota workers’ compensation judge due to lack of jurisdiction.  The employee appealed.

In general, Indian tribes are not subject to suit unless Congress has authorized the suit or the tribe has waived immunity.  In this case, the tribe did not waive immunity.  The employee argued that Congress authorized the suit because a federal law, U.S.C. § 3172, allowed the State of Minnesota to adjudicate a dispute arising out of an injury claimed to have occurred on land held by the federal government in trust for an Indian tribe.  Therefore, the employee argued, there was jurisdiction and the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act applied.

The WCCA did not agree, and affirmed the compensation judge’s decision to dismiss the claim under Tibbetts v. Leech Lake Reservation Bus. Comm., 397 N.W.2d 883 (Minn. 1986), a case stating the federal law in question was “never intended to apply to Indian tribes themselves” and “cannot be read to confer upon states jurisdiction over otherwise immune or exempt parties.”  Id. at 888.