HIGHLIGHTS:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin v. United States that a tribe has six years from the time a claim for self-determination contract support costs (CSC) first arises to present the claim to a governmental agency allegedly owing it reimbursement for those costs.
  • A tribe cannot rely upon equitable tolling to lengthen that time period unless it has both diligently pursued its claims and encountered extraordinary circumstances beyond its control that prevented the timely presentation of those claims.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Jan. 25, 2016, against the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin (Tribe) in Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin v. United States, et al., 577 U.S. ___ (2016) regarding its claims that the Indian Health Service (IHS) owed the Tribe self-determination contract support costs (CSC) covering contract years 1995 through 2004.

The Court's Analysis

This case raised the questions of whether a tribe may extend the usual six-year statute of limitations period to present its claims for CSC, and if so, under what "equitable tolling" circumstances. A unanimous Court held that the doctrine of equitable tolling (in which a court finds that in fairness the time period should be extended) cannot be invoked unless the doctrine’s two specific requirements are met.

The Court's analysis was based on the federal Contract Disputes Act (CDA), which controls many disputes arising under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (ISDA). Under those two statutes, a tribe has to present its CSC claims for initial acceptance or denial by the agency's contracting officer within six years after the claims first arise. If the tribe fails to do so, the statute of limitations period for bringing the claims will have run, and the tribe cannot rely upon equitable tolling to lengthen that time period unless it has both diligently pursued its claims and encountered extraordinary circumstances beyond its control that prevented the timely presentation of those claims.

Equitable Tolling

The Menominee Tribe argued that the six-year period should have been equitably tolled for the nearly two years that the Tribe delayed its claims presentment because it hoped it would be included in a related class action case in another court. (That court ultimately denied class certification.) The Supreme Court disagreed with all of the Tribe's arguments. It said the Tribe had not diligently pursued its rights, and found no external circumstance both extraordinary and beyond the Tribe's control that prevented timely filing. The Court concluded its analysis by finding that the special trust relationship between the United States and Indian tribes did not override the procedural requirements of the ISDA and the CDA.