United States v. Tohono O’odham Nation


The Tohono O’odham Nation (an Indian Tribe with federal recognition) brought two actions based on the same alleged violations of fiduciary duty with respect to the Nation’s lands and other assets. One action was filed against federal officials in district court and the other against the United States in the Court of Federal Claims (CFC). The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that the CFC suit was not barred by the rule that the CFC lacks jurisdiction over an action “for or in respect to” a claim that is also the subject of an action pending in another court. 28 U. S. C. §1500. The question presented before the Supreme Court was whether a common factual basis like the one apparent in the Nation’s suits sufficed to bar jurisdiction under §1500.

The case turn on the relationship between the two suits the Nation filed. The first suit was filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia against federal officials responsible for managing tribal assets held in trust by the Federal Government. The complaint alleged various violations of fiduciary duty with respect to those assets. The Nation claimed, for example, that the officials failed to provide an accurate accounting of trust property; to refrain from self-dealing; or to use reasonable skill in investing trust assets. The complaint requested equitable relief, including an accounting.

The next day the Nation filed the present action against the United States in the CFC. The CFC complaint described the same trust assets and the same fiduciary duties that were the subject of the District Court complaint. And it alleged almost identical violations of fiduciary duty, for which it requested money damages. The CFC case was dismissed under §1500 for want of jurisdiction.

A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed. 559 F. 3d 1284 (2009). Two suits are for or in respect to the same claim, it reasoned, only if they share operative facts and also seek overlapping relief. Finding no overlap in the relief requested, the court held that the two suits at issue were not for or in respect to the same claim. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

The Supreme Court observed that the CFC had no jurisdiction over a claim if the plaintiff had another suit for or in respect to that claim pending against the United States or its agents.

The question to be resolved in the matter was what it meant for two suits to be “for or in respect to” the same claim. Keene Corp. v. United States, 508 U. S. 200 (1993), provided a partial answer. It held that two suits are for or in respect to the same claim when they are based on substantially the same operative facts, at least if there is some overlap in the relief requested. The Keene case did not decide whether the jurisdictional bar also operate if the suits were based on the same operative facts but did not seek overlapping relief. Keene narrowed the permissible constructions of “for or in respect to” a claim to one of two interpretations. Either it required substantial factual and some remedial overlap, or it required substantial factual overlap without more.

The Supreme Court observed that reading the statute to require only factual and not also remedial overlap made sense in light of the unique remedial powers of the CFC. The CFC is the only judicial forum for most non-tort requests for significant monetary relief against the United States. Unlike the district courts, however, the CFC had no general power to provide equitable relief against the Government or its officers. The distinct jurisdiction of the CFC make overlapping relief the exception and distinct relief the norm. For that reason, a statute aimed at precluding suits in the CFC that duplicate suits elsewhere would be unlikely to require remedial overlap. The Supreme Court observed that the Court of Appeals was wrong to allow its precedent to suppress the statute’s aims. The conclusion that two suits are for or in respect to the same claim when they are based on substantially the same operative facts allow the statute to achieve its aim. The form of relief requested matter less, except insofar as it affects what facts parties must prove. An interpretation of §1500 focused on the facts rather than the relief a party seek preserve the provision as it was meant to function, and it keep the provision from becoming a mere pleading rule, to be circumvented by carving up a single transaction into overlapping pieces seeking different relief. Concentrating on operative facts was also consistent with the doctrine of claim preclusion, or res judicata, which bar repetitious suits involving the same cause of action once a court of competent jurisdiction had entered a final judgment on the merits. The jurisdictional bar in §1500 was enacted in part to address the problem that judgments in suits against officers were not preclusive in suits against the United States. So the statute would operate in similar fashion. The now accepted test in preclusion law for determining whether two suits involve the same claim or cause of action depends on factual overlap, barring “claims arising from the same transaction.” Reading §1500 to depend on the underlying facts and not also on the relief requested give effect to the principles of preclusion law embodied in the statute.

Rejecting the Nation’s assertion that the interpretation adopted could not prevail because it was unjust, forcing plaintiffs to choose between partial remedies available in different courts, the Court reasoned that Nation could have filed in the CFC alone and if successful obtained monetary relief to compensate for any losses caused by the Government’s breach of duty. Even were some hardship to be shown, considerations of policy divorced from the statute’s text and purpose could not override its meaning. Although Congress has permitted claims against the United States for monetary relief in the CFC, that relief is available by grace and not by right. If indeed the statute leads to incomplete relief, and if plaintiffs like the Nation are dissatisfied, they are free to direct their complaints to Congress.

Keene reserved the question whether common facts are sufficient to bar a CFC action where a similar case is pending elsewhere. To continue to reserve the question would force the CFC to engage in an unnecessary and complicated remedial inquiry, and it would increase the expense and duration of litigation. The question thus demands an answer, and the answer is yes. Two suits are for or in respect to the same claim, precluding jurisdiction in the CFC, if they are based on substantially the same operative facts, regardless of the relief sought in each suit.

On the question whether the Nation’s two suits have sufficient factual overlap to trigger the jurisdictional bar, the Supreme Court agreed with the CFC which dismissed the action in part because it concluded that the facts in the Nation’s two suits were “for all practical purposes, identical.”

The Supreme Court thus enjoined the CFC from exercising jurisdiction over the Nation’s suit while the District Court case was pending. Should the Nation choose to dismiss the latter action, or upon that action’s completion, the Nation was free to file suit again in the CFC if the statute of limitations was no bar. In light of the substantial overlap in operative facts between them, the two suits were held to be “for or in respect to” the same claim under §1500, and the CFC case was dismissed. The judgment of the Court of Appeals was reversed, and the case was remanded for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.