Okla. Tribe's Coronavirus Relief Suit Moved To DC

By Emma Whitford
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Law360 (July 29, 2020, 4:19 PM EDT) -- An Oklahoma court has granted the U.S. Department of the Treasury's bid to move a Shawnee Tribe case to Washington, D.C., saying the first-to-file rule merits moving the case over allocation of coronavirus relief funds to a venue where similar cases are pending.

U.S. District Judge John E. Dowdell on Tuesday said that the outcome of the Shawnee Tribe's case — which claims the government used inaccurate population data to award it minimum funding — could influence two other pending cases in D.C. federal court that question how and when remaining relief funds should be distributed.

Citing the Fifth Circuit's decision in Cadle Co. v. Whataburger of Alice, Inc. , Judge Dowdell said applicability of the first-to-file rule is based on three considerations: case chronology, the similarities of the parties, and the similarities of the issues raised.

"The issues in this [Shawnee] case substantially overlap with the issues in the first-filed cases," Judge Dowdell wrote on Tuesday.

One of the overlapping D.C. cases, brought by the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation, challenges the Treasury's decision to include Alaska Native Corporations in an $8 billion funding pool for tribes under Title V of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

The other, brought by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, successfully argued that the Treasury should release remaining funds, except those held while the Alaska Native case is on appeal.

The Shawnee Tribe, meanwhile, is seeking to withhold at least $12 million in Title V funds, while it argues that the Treasury disregarded population data provided by the tribe and opted for the faulty Indian Housing Block Grant metric, under which the tribe has a population of zero. 

Resolving the "primary issue" in the Shawnee case "would require the court to determine the degree to which the [Treasury] Department can further delay distribution of the Title V funds, which was the question in Agua Caliente," Judge Dowdell said on Tuesday.

"Similarly," he continued, "because the relief sought by the Shawnee would necessarily come at the expense of the ANCs, the Shawnee's suit is effectively a collateral attack on the injunction granted by the D.C. court in Confederated Tribes."

Before Judge Dowdell's Tuesday order, the Treasury Department pointed to similarities between the Shawnee case and yet another D.C. federal case regarding Title V funding, brought by the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. The Prairie Band also sued the Treasury Department over the Indian Housing Block Grant metric.

But Judge Dowdell said on Tuesday that the Prairie Band case is not relevant to first-to-file considerations.

"The D.C. court has decided Prairie Band," he said. "The case is closed. Accordingly, although Prairie Band involved nearly identical issues, the first-to-file rule simply does not apply."

In July 23 filings, the Shawnee Tribe attempted to distinguish its case from the Prairie Band case, accusing the Treasury of "feign[ing] inability to comprehend nuances or even vast differences in legal argument."

Counsel for the tribe and federal government, as well as the Treasury Department, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Shawnee Tribe is represented by Gregory Bigler of Bigler Law and Pilar M. Thomas and Nicole L. Simmons of Quarles & Brady LLP.

The federal government is represented by Jason C. Lynch and Kuntal Cholera of the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Division.

The case is Shawnee Tribe v. Steven T. Mnuchin et al., case number 4:20-cv-00290, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma.

--Additional reporting by Andrew Westney. Editing by Nicole Bleier.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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