American Indian Judgments

August 9, 2023


I am not a lawyer, I am a Judgment Broker. This article is my opinion, and not legal advice, based on my experience in California. Laws vary in each state. If you ever need any legal advice or a strategy to use, please contact a lawyer.

What if you have a judgment against a Native American Indian business or casino; or against an Indian Native American who lives or works on reservation land? In such situations, the odds for a judgment recovery is not good.

In many ways, American Indian land is another country. American Indians get “Sovereign Immunity” protection. Unfortunately, there is not a reliable, cheap, or easy way to domesticate a regular civil judgment into a tribal court. The odds are not great, however there is a chance you might recover a tribal-related judgment.

Many tribal reservations are closed to process servers, who are not allowed to enter tribal land to serve legal papers. The USPS does not deliver mail to many tribal addresses, so some “addresses” are not always “real” addresses, and are sometimes difficult to locate.

Everything depends on the differences in tribal laws, and the mutual relationship (known as “comity”) between the Indian tribal reservations, which is legally a sovereign nation, and not part of any state the world of US states. state). Tribes operate under Federal Corporate Charter. There are 562 federally recognized “nations” that are sovereign governments. Bureau of Indian Affairs issues Federal Corporate Charter pursuant to the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.

The Tribal council picks the name of the tribe’s Federal corporation. Corporation shall have perpetual existence unless charter is revoked or surrendered by Act of Congress – 25 U.S.C.§ 477. The corporation is wholly owned by tribe. Tribal council performs customary functions of the sole shareholder of the corporation, including but not limited to the election of directors. Issuance of shares not required to delineate the tribe’s ownership in the corporation. Each tribe has its own constitution. Each tribe has its own ordinances. Each tribe has its own court system. Tribal courts have jurisdiction over most civil matters that arise within the nation.

One can research, Pit River Tribe, that controls 100 acres. In their ordinances, Title 4, Rules of Civil Procedures, Chapter 19, Miscellaneous, Rule 1901: “The Tribal Court may as a matter of comity (courtesy, a disposition to accommodate) enforce the judgment of another Tribe, the United States, a state or foreign nation, provided, that such a judgment may be enforced only after hearing or trial, on an action or special proceeding in the Tribal Court, requesting enforcement relief and complying with Title I, Chapter 10, Full Faith and Credit. An authenticated copy of the judgment of the other jurisdiction shall accompany the complaint seeking enforcement.”

Some tribes recognize state laws in certain instances, in exchange for reciprocal treatment under state laws. Tribes usually protect their members from judgment enforcements.

The first thing to try, is to contact someone in charge of the particular tribe involved by phone, and ask them what their policy is on judgment enforcement. Most may not want to cooperate, however some will. The most common policy is that outside judgment enforcement wage garnishments are ok when the employee being garnished is not a member of their particular tribe.

One way to enforce a judgment against a Native American person or entity, is to levy their (movable) property when it is not on tribal land. The way to do this is within state civil laws.

For example, if your Native American judgment debtor owns a Porsche, the civil Sheriff will never enter a tribal land to levy it. However, if you are well prepared, you might be able to pay a civil Sheriff to levy the judgment debtor’s vehicle, if the judgment debtor drives it to (e.g.) a store, or to an auto mechanic, off of tribal lands.

If you can arrange a vehicle levy when it is not on tribal land, the judgment debtor will need to go to state court to defend against the levy, and will get no special treatment from being a member of a tribal reservation.

If you have a judgment against an American Indian business or casino, perhaps you could make progress with their off-reservation supply chains. With legal state civil procedures, you could levy or have third-party examinations concerning tribal property in the possession of a non-tribal business, under the jurisdiction of the state court.

You must respect every Indian entity you deal with, or you might find yourself banned from reservations by tribal councils. That would probably be game over, for any chance of recovering your judgment.

Many Indian tribe members work at gaming-related employers. Those who work on reservations can sometimes have their wages garnished. Whether you can, depends on which reservation, who you talk to, and what day of the week it is. If a non-Indian is working at an Indian business, their wages may be garnished by a state civil Sheriff.

In the past, Congress enacted legislation requiring state courts to honor tribal child custody orders as part of the Indian Child Welfare Act, see 25 USC §1911.

Congress then passed federal laws requiring state and tribal courts to honor and enforce each other’s child support orders, see 28 USC §1738B, and domestic violence protection orders, see 18 USC §2265.

When a civil dispute involves an American Indian on a reservation, for example, a business owed money by an American Indian person or entity, the US Supreme Court has long since recognized that such a case can only be brought in a tribal court, and not a state court. See Williams v. Lee, 358 US 217 (1959).

Some off-reservation businesses require tribal councils to sign waivers of immunity before they will do business with them. Most tribes do not sign such waivers, however when they do, it is usually easier to recover judgments against them.

If the state-court judgment was obtained by a business with whom the tribe had executed such a waiver, you might be able to obtain assistance from the local tribal court system to enforce the judgment.

Enforcing judgments against Native American people or businesses is not easy. You must familiarize yourself with the laws in the tribes where you have judgments, or find someone who knows about this.

When a tribe member claims they are judgment-proof because of their tribe sovereignty, showing the case below to the tribal management council might help:

UNITED STATES v. WEDDELL, 187 F.3d 645 (eighth Circuit 1999) where the Court affirms district court’s ruling that Federal Debt Collection Procedures Act (FDCPA), which defines “person” who may be sued as a garnishee to include “an Indian Tribe” 28 USC Section 3002(10). Clearly and unequivocally expressed waiver of Indian Tribe’s sovereign immunity, and thus subjected tribe, as garnishee, to garnishment suit against one of its members. Reasons given are that Congress has the plenary power to statutorily waive a tribe’s sovereign immunity, and that Congress did so under the FDCPA.

If you have judgments involving tribal courts, I recommend this book: http://www.upress.umn.edu/Books/A/austin_navajo.html. More information for the book is at: http://uanews.org/node/30111.

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