April 25, 2017

Supreme Court Decides Lewis v. Clarke

On April 25, 2017, the Supreme Court decided Lewis v. Clarke, No. 15-1500, holding that an Indian tribe’s sovereign immunity does not bar a suit against a tribe official or employee, in their individual capacity, for acts he or she committed within the scope of his or her tribal employment, even where the tribe has voluntarily agreed to indemnify the individual for such claims.

The Mohegan Tribe of Indians of Connecticut is a federally recognized Indian tribe that entered into a Gaming Compact with the State of Connecticut under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, 25 U.S.C. § 2701 et seq. The Tribe’s Gaming Authority governs the Tribe’s gaming activities. The Gaming Authority has waived its sovereign immunity and consented to being sued in Mohegan Gaming Disputes Court, but neither the Tribe nor the Gaming Authority has consented to being sued for claims arising under Connecticut state law. The Gaming Authority also has agreed to indemnify its employees for losses arising out of any claim that the employee was negligent while acting within the scope of his or her employment.

Respondent William Clarke is an employee of the Tribe’s Gaming Authority. While acting within the scope of that employment, Clarke rear-ended petitioners Brian and Michelle Lewis on a Connecticut highway, causing an accident. The Lewises sued Clarke in his individual capacity in Connecticut state court. 

Clarke moved to dismiss the suit for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. He argued that the Tribe’s sovereign immunity barred the Lewises’ suit against him because he was acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the accident and, alternatively, because the Gaming Authority was obligated to indemnify him for any losses that resulted from the Lewises’ claims. The trial court denied Clarke’s motion. It held that Clarke, not the Tribe, was the real party in interest and thus that the Tribe’s sovereign immunity was not implicated, notwithstanding the Gaming Authority’s voluntary indemnity agreement. The Connecticut Supreme Court reversed and held that the Tribe’s sovereign immunity extended to Clarke—and thus barred the Lewises’ suit—because Clarke was acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the accident.

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded. It confirmed that the “identity of the real party in interest dictates what immunities may be available” and that “in the context of lawsuits against state and federal employees or entities, courts should look at whether the sovereign is the real party in interest to determine whether sovereign immunity bars the suit.” It further instructed that courts should not rely on the parties’ characterization of the lawsuit, but should determine whether “an action is in essence against a State even if the State is not a named part.”

The Court then distinguished the real parties in interest in individual- and official-capacity suits:  official-capacity claims seek relief only nominally against an official but the real party in interest is the official’s office (a governmental entity), while individual-capacity claims seek relief from an official for actions he or she took under color of state law, such that the individual official is the real party in interest. The Court confirmed that a state, federal, or tribal employee subject to an official-capacity claim may invoke the Eleventh Amendment’s sovereign immunity protections, but one defending an individual-capacity claim may not. 

The Court found that the Lewises’ suit was against Clarke individually to recover for personal actions that he took within the scope of his tribal employment. It thus held that Clarke, rather than the Tribe, was the real party in interest. It rejected Clarke’s argument that the Gaming Authority’s indemnification obligation extended the Tribe’s sovereign immunity to protect him from the Lewises’ suit and reiterated that “[t]he critical [real-party-in-interest] inquiry is who may be legally bound by the court’s adverse judgment, not who will ultimately pick up the tab.”

Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Alito, and Kagan joined. Justice Thomas and Justice Ginsburg filed concurring opinions. Justice Gorsuch took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Download Opinion of the Court

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