A federal appeals court this week ruled that Native American tribes cannot be sued under the False Claims Act in a decision involving a whistleblower lawsuit filed by former employees of a Montana tribal college.
Although a unanimous panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are immune to FCA lawsuits, it revived the lawsuit and remanded the case to determine whether Salish Kootenai College is actually an arm of the tribes and shares their sovereign immunity.
According to the court’s opinion, former employees of Salish Kootenai College brought action against the school, its foundation and eight college board members alleging they violated FCA and Montana law.
The plaintiffs claimed that the college knowingly provided false progress reports on students in order to keep grant monies coming from the U.S Department of Health and Human Services and Indian Health Service.
The college moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the suit was barred by tribal sovereign immunity. The case was initially dismissed in district court, which held that the college was an arm of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and therefore shared the tribes’ sovereign immunity.
In its opinion this week, the 9th Circuit revived the lawsuit and remanded the case back to district court to determine whether the college is an arm of the tribes that enjoys immunity.
“On remand, the district court shall allow appropriate discovery before determining whether the College is an arm of the Tribes under White,” the court wrote in its opinion.
The court found that White v. University of California served as the “proper standard for answering” the question.
That case dates back to 1976 when two 9,000-year-old skeletons were unearthed during an excavation at the University of California. A cultural committee representing 12 different tribes in California filed suit for the repatriation of the skeletons, to which the university agreed.
However, according to one legal website, three scientists interested in studying the remains sued the university to block their return.
A district court dismissed their claim, finding that the tribes were a necessary part of the suit but were protected by sovereign immunity – a decision upheld in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.