October 28, 2022
A recent Law 360 story by Caleb Symons, “California Rebuffs Tribes’ Bid for $1.1M Atty Fee in Gaming Appeal” reports that California and its governor, Gavin Newsom, say five Native American tribes that earlier this year won a Ninth Circuit decision over their gaming negotiations with the state are not entitled to more than $1.1 million in attorney fees, since federal Indian law offers no such relief. That dispute comes several months after the Ninth Circuit gave the five tribes — the Chicken Ranch Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians, the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe, the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians, the Robinson Rancheria of Pomo Indians and the Blue Lake Rancheria of the Wiyot, Yurok and Hupa Indians — major leverage in their gaming negotiations.
In the wake of that decision, in which a panel of the appellate court prohibited California from adding to the tribes' new gaming compacts any regulatory topics not directly tied to gambling, tribal leaders have sought to recoup $1,130,679 they estimated spending on the litigation. California fired back, saying the tribes are ineligible for that relief because the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act contains no provision for recovering such expenses.
Nor can the tribes turn to state civil procedure to recoup their attorney fees, Newsom and other state officials argued, since the case involved only questions of the federal Indian gaming law, not state law. The Ninth Circuit has already determined — in the 2018 case Independent Living Center of Southern California Inc. v. Kent — that such claims are valid exclusively in litigation over state law, according to California.
"The tribes' attempt to expand Kent to permit state law attorneys' fees awards in federal court cases that do not adjudicate a state law claim remains wholly without support," the state said. In their Sept. 26 motion, the five Native tribes said their request of $1.1 million in attorney fees was based on reduced rates and reflected a proper "lodestar" amount, defined as the product of the number of hours reasonably spent on the litigation and a reasonable hourly rate for the attorneys.
That calculation, on the high end, proposes $980 per hour for Lester J. Marston of Rapport and Marston, which represents all the tribes except the Blue Lake Rancheria. At the low end, it proposes $300 per hour for Marston's son, a law clerk at the same firm. But even if the tribes are, in fact, eligible to recoup such expenses, California and Newsom responded, the state is immune from furnishing those funds under the 11th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
California never waived its sovereign immunity in the litigation, the state added, calling the tribes "mistaken" for contending that it set aside its immunity under a statute that allows for lawsuits against the state that are related to the federal Indian gaming act. That statute, known as Section 98005, allows for "good faith" litigation under the Indian gaming act but does not waive California's immunity to attorney fees, according to state officials. "Because Section 98005 is silent on attorneys' fees, the statute does not 'unequivocally' waive the state's immunity to a claim for such fees," they said.