January 25, 2016

Supreme Court Decides Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin v. United States

On January 25, 2016, the United States Supreme Court decided Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin v. United States, No. 14-510, holding that a litigant is entitled to equitable tolling of a federal statute of limitations only if the litigant establishes both 1) he has been pursuing his rights diligently, and 2) some extraordinary circumstance beyond the litigant’s control caused the delay in asserting his claim.

The Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin (Tribe) asserted claims against the federal government for failing to honor its obligation to pay certain costs associated with the Tribe’s agreement to carry out certain programs that are normally federally funded. The Contract Disputes Act (41 U.S.C. § 7103(a)(4)(A)) requires such claims to be presented to a contracting officer within six years of their accrual. The Tribe presented some of its claims more than six years after the government’s alleged failure to pay. The government denied the claims as time-barred.

The Tribe challenged the denials in federal district court, arguing that the limitation period should have been tolled during a two-year period during which a putative class action involving other Tribes’ claims against the government was pending. The district court rejected the Tribe’s argument and dismissed its claims, and the D.C. Circuit affirmed, holding that the Tribe failed to establish the “extraordinary-circumstances” requirement for equitable tolling because the circumstances that caused the delay in the Tribe presenting its claims were not beyond its control, but were the product of its own misunderstanding of the law or tactical mistakes in litigation.

The Supreme Court affirmed. The Court applied the equitable-tolling test that it set out in Holland v. Florida, 560 U.S. 631(2010), under which a litigant is entitled to equitable tolling of a statute of limitations only if the litigant establishes: (1) that he has been pursuing his rights diligently, and (2) that some extraordinary circumstance stood in his way and prevented timely filing. The Court emphasized that these are distinct elements, not merely factors to be considered, pointing out that it has rejected requests for equitable tolling in cases where a litigant failed to satisfy one of the elements without even addressing the other element. The Court reaffirmed that the “extraordinary-circumstances” requirement is met “only where the circumstances that caused a litigant’s delay are both extraordinary and beyond its control.” The Court concluded that the Tribe’s excuses for failure to present its claims on time did not satisfy the “extraordinary-circumstances” prong because its claimed obstacles, mainly its mistaken reliance on a putative class action, were not obstacles outside of its control. The Court also stated that the special relationship between the United States and Indian tribes did not override the clear statutory language of the Contract Disputes Act.

Justice Alito delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Download Opinion of the Court.

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