In this week's Alabama Law Weekly Update, we review a decision from the Supreme Court of Alabama regarding who may file a wrongful-death claim and a decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit regarding taxation of tribal lands held in trust under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.
Ex parte Bio-Medical Applications of Alabama, Inc., d/b/a BMA Magnolia a/k/a Fresenius Medical Care Magnolia Grove, Case No. 1150362 (Ala. 2016) (Wrongful-death action filed by someone other than the personal representative of the decedent's estate was a nullity).
P. Howard passed away on September 24, 2012. One of her sons, D. Howard (“Darrick”), was appointed as the personal representative of P. Howard's estate. Shortly thereafter, P. Howard's other son, C. Howard (“Corey”), filed a wrongful-death action against certain entities which had provided healthcare services to P. Howard prior to her death (hereinafter “the defendants”). In September 2014, more than two years after P. Howard's death, the defendants asked the trial court to grant summary judgment in their favor, arguing, among other things, that the lawsuit was a “nullity” because Corey filed it instead of the personal representative of P. Howard's estate, Darrick. The trial court denied the defendants' request. The defendants then filed separate petitions for a writ of mandamus in which they asked the Supreme Court of Alabama to direct the trial court to enter summary judgment in favor of the defendants.
The Supreme Court of Alabama agreed with the defendants and directed the trial court to grant summary judgment in their favor. The Supreme Court of Alabama explained that wrongful-death lawsuits exist in Alabama only because certain statutes authorize them. The statute allowing wrongful-death lawsuits such as this one requires that the personal representative of the deceased's estate file the lawsuit. It does not authorize anyone else to do so. Darrick argued that, as personal representative of P. Howard's estate, he was authorized to use an agent to perform “any act of administration,” and that he used Corey as an agent to file the wrongful-death lawsuit. The Supreme Court of Alabama explained that filing a wrongful-death lawsuit is not considered an “act of administration,” so this argument did not dissuade the Court from ruling in favor of the defendants.
Poarch Band of Creek Indians v. James Hildreth, Jr., in his official capacity as Tax Assessor of Escambia County, Alabama, Case No. 15-13400 (11th Cir. July 11, 2016) (Preliminary injunction preventing tax assessment of tribal lands upheld).
In June 1984, the Secretary of Indian Affairs formally recognized the Poarch Band of Creek Indians as an “Indian tribe within the meaning of Federal law.” Following this official recognition, the United States accepted approximately 229 acres of real property in Escambia County, Alabama into trust as a reservation for the Poarch Band. In 1992 and 1995, the Poarch Band conveyed additional land to be held in trust. Each deed stated the properties were acquired pursuant to part of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (“IRA”), which exempts lands held in trust by the United States from state and local taxation. In 2012, the chairman of the Escambia County Commission wrote the Secretary of the Interior and asked whether the property held in trust for the Poarch Band had been legally conveyed into the trust. This letter also requested that the United States relinquish its interest in the subject property. The United States declined to do so.
In 2014, J. Hildreth, the Tax Assessor for Escambia County, informed the Poarch Band that some of the subject property would be subject to an audit for the purpose of valuing it and assessing it for taxes. After some additional correspondence, the Poarch Band filed a lawsuit to prevent taxation of the subject property. The trial court made a preliminary finding in the Poarch Band's favor and entered a preliminary injunction which prevented the taxation while the lawsuit was pending. Hildreth then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit upheld the trial court's decision to grant the preliminary injunction. The Eleventh Circuit disagreed with Hildreth's argument that, because the Poarch Band was formally recognized after 1934 (the year the IRA was enacted), the United States did not have authority to accept the subject property and exempt it from taxation. In doing so, the Eleventh Circuit referenced the Administrative Procedure Act as the proper vehicle through which to challenge the United States' acceptance of tribal lands to be held in trust. The Eleventh Circuit also found the trial court reasonably concluded that a state tax assessment would be tantamount to an “irreparable violation of tribal sovereignty” which would outweigh any harm resulting to Escambia County from delayed tax assessment during the pendency of the lawsuit.