Court Ruling Spells Defeat for Fired Sauk-Suiattle Workers

Eight individuals who say they were fired by the Sauk-Suiattle tribe because of their race have hit “the end of the road,” according to their attorney Jeffrey Needle. A tribal court appellate ruling late last month denied the former employees redress, saying essentially that it didn’t matter if they were discriminated against because they were not Native American. The tribes have sovereign immunity—the legal principle that says that governments can’t be sued unless they waive such immunity.

As we wrote in a cover story on the case back in March, the federal government, states, counties and cities have all granted broad waivers. But most tribes have not—an issue that has frustrated others who have tried to sue, on matters ranging from injuries at tribal casinos to alleged wrongful death at the hands of tribal police officers.

From the June 25 ruling in the Sauk-Suiattle case:

The Sauk-Suiattle Tribe has chosen to assert its sovereign immunity,. The result could make it difficult for the Tribe to recruit and keep qualified non-member employees. The wisdom of that decision, however, rests with the Tribe’s governing body.

The eight plaintiffs, and three other Sauk-Suiattle employees at the time, were all fired en masse at a strange and chaotic tribal council meeting in June of 2011. Michael Hoffman, the council member who proposed the firings, one after another, refused to say why he was doing so, even when sharply questioned. He did note, however, that “none of these people are Sauk-Suiattle, other Natives, spouses of Natives,” leading one observer present to suggest discrimination then and there.

An anti-white sentiment ran through a faction of the tiny tribe near Darrington, according to both former and current employees who spoke with Seattle Weekly. And they discussed other problems as well, including alleged corruption and corrosive family rivalries.

The plaintiffs seemed to have a shot at penetrating sovereign immunity last October, when a tribal court judge declined to dismiss the case, as requested by the tribe. The judge said more information was needed as to whether Hoffman had waived sovereign immunity in apologetic conversations he later had with two of the fired workers. The judge also left the door open to an argument made by the plaintiffs that the tribe had violated its own procedures as it fired the workers, thereby invalidating sovereign immunity.

But the ruling by a three-judge panel didn’t address Hoffman at all, and it gave short shrift to the procedural argument.

Needle says he is “extremely disappointed” with the decision. “The essence of the court’s ruling is that tribal council members can essentially do whatever they want, whenever they want, and to whomever they want without regard to the rule of law.”

But the lawyer says the only place he could possibly appeal further is federal court, and only if he could say his clients were denied due process in tribal court. He concedes that was not the case.

He says, however, that he and his clients are likely to seek justice another way. According to Needle and former employees, many of those fired had been paid with funds taken from federal grants. As a condition of those grants, they say, the Sauk-Suiattle pledged not to discriminate. Needle says he may now contact the granting agencies to tell them that the tribe broke that promise.

“I’m not holding my breath for the granting agencies to take action,” he says. “But they should know.”

Sauk-Suiattle attorney Jack Fiander has not yet returned a request for comment.

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