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Court Clarifies Equitable Tolling Rules in Menominee Tribe Case

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on February 05, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act allows Native American tribes to take over certain aid programs that would otherwise be the responsibility of the federal government. The Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin did just that, entering into a "self-determination contract" with the Indian Health Services.

Contracting tribes are eligible to receive money that the U.S. government would have spent on the program, but many have complained that the federal government has often failed to fully reimburse contract support cost. Those dissatisfied tribes include the Menominee, who sued after years of conflict with the federal government -- only to have some of their claims rejected for falling outside the statute of limitations. The tribe argued that equitable tolling should allow them to pursue their claims, but the Supreme Court unanimously rejected that argument on January 25th. Here's why.

One Successful Suit Gives Birth to Another

In 1988, 13 years after the ISDA's enactment, Congress amended the Act to apply the Contract Disputes Act to controversies arising under the ISDA. Contracting tribes are required to present "each claim" they have to a contracting officer, within six years.

In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and the Shoshone and Paiute tribes were entitled to contract support costs the federal government had originally agreed to pay but later refused. The Court noted that one of the main impetuses behind the IDSA was "congressional concern with Government's past failure to adequately reimburse tribes' indirect administrative costs" and the desire to cover such costs in the future. At the same time, the Menominee tribe was pursuing a class action over similar claims, a lawsuit that eventually failed.

Following that case, the Menominee presented contract support claims to the Indian Health Services, arguing that they were entitled to reimbursement for CSC costs from 1995 to 2004. The problem, of course, is that the claims from years prior to 1999 fell outside of the CDA's six-year statute of limitations. They argued that the claims should be equitably tolled for the two years that it delayed presenting its claims while pursuing its class action. The tribe took their claims to district court and eventually the D.C. Circuit. Both courts rejected the tribe's equitable tolling arguments.

No Equitable Tolling

To qualify for equitable tolling, a party must show that it has both diligently pursued its claims and encountered "extraordinary circumstances" beyond its control. Before the Supreme Court, the tribe argued that those two requirements should not be treated as rigid, separate elements, but factors in a unitary test. The Menominee had diligently pursued its claims through its class action, the tribe argued, which should be enough given the equitable nature of the tolling doctrine.

The Supreme Court wasn't convinced. In a unanimous decision authored by Justice Alito, the Court ruled that both requirements were "distinct elements," both of which must be met in order to qualify for equitable tolling. That requires both a diligent pursuit and external circumstances that prevent timely filing. For the second prong, the tribe must show that external circumstances were both extraordinary and outside of its control, something it could not do here.

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