Tribe Loses Decades-Old Claim to New York Land

By MARLENE KENNEDY June 26, 2014

Courthouse News Service

MANHATTAN (CN) – Affirming dismissal of a decades-old tribal claim to a wide swath of land in upstate New York, the 2nd Circuit cited a trio of cases that also involved ancestral lands.
“It is well-settled that claims by an Indian tribe alleging that it was unlawfully dispossessed of land early in America’s history are barred by the equitable principles of laches, acquiescence and impossibility,” the unsigned decision filed Friday states.
The Stockbridge-Munsee Community of Wisconsin brought the appeal after a federal judge in Albany dismissed its claims to 36 square miles of land – about 23,000 acres – lying between Syracuse and Utica.
Originally filed in 1986, Stockbridge’s lawsuit against the state and others sought eviction and trespass damages.
The Oneida Indian Nation soon intervened as a defendant, claiming the land was part of its historic reservation.
A 2004 amended complaint argued that New York failed to get required federal consent for its acquisition of the tribe’s upstate land in 15 transactions between 1818 and 1842.
The court dismissed the lawsuit after a settlement attempt failed, finding that the state and the Oneida enjoyed sovereign immunity and that the claims against the towns and counties were barred by a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
The 2nd Circuit last week cited that case, City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, as one of three decisions that “foreclosed” the Stockbridge land claim.
Sherrill involved Oneida’s claim to a property-tax exemption on historic reservation land, but the Supreme Court deemed such a “disruptive remedy” time-barred by the “long lapse of time during which the Oneidas did not seek to revive their sovereign control through equitable relief in court and the attendant dramatic changes in the character of the properties.”
Judges Dennis Jacobs, Chester Straub and Reena Raggi concurred for the federal appeals court, which also cited circuit precedent from 2005 and 2010 that cited Sherrill in turning back other “disruptive” and “long delayed” land claims by the Cayuga and Oneida nations.
“In the wake of this trilogy … it is now well-established that Indian land claims asserted generations after an alleged dispossession are inherently disruptive of state and local governance and the settled expectations of current landowners, and are subject to dismissal on the basis of laches, acquiescence and impossibility,” the judges wrote.
They noted that the three decisions did not focus on “the elements of traditional laches but rather more generally on the length of time at issue between an historical injustice and the present day, on the disruptive nature of claims long delayed, and on the degree to which these claims upset the justifiable expectations of individuals and entities far removed from the events giving rise to the plaintiffs’ injury.”
Don Miller of Boulder, Colo., argued for the Stockbridge. Michael Smith of Zuckerman Spaeder in Washington, D.C., represented the Oneida Nation.
Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Lang represented the state defendants: New York State; then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, father of current Gov. Andrew Cuomo; the state Department of Transportation; and then-DOT Commissioner Franklin White.
David Tennant of Nixon Peabody in Rochester argued for the town and county defendants in the affected region. They included the towns of Augusta, Lincoln, Smithfield, Stockbridge and Vernon; the village of Munnsville; and the counties of Madison and Oneida. The communities are small and mostly rural.