December 20, 2014

Neb. high court OKs lawsuit against Omaha tribe

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) – The state Supreme Court ruled March 25 that the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska can be subject to a lawsuit over payment for work on its casinos, racetrack and other facilities.

The tribe had argued that it was immune from the lawsuit filed by StoreVisions Inc., an Omaha-based building contractor, for breach of contract. The October 2009 lawsuit in Thurston County District Court said the tribe has not paid for construction work.

The Macy-based tribe had asked the high court to throw out the case, arguing that it is immune from lawsuits because the federal government has granted American Indian tribes sovereign immunity. The tribe said in court documents that a waiver of sovereign immunity signed in 2008 by the tribal chairman and vice chairman for StoreVisions isn't valid.

But the state Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling that the waiver is valid and that the lawsuit can proceed. The lawsuit had been on hold pending the appeal.

“There is no dispute that the tribe is a separate sovereign and generally entitled to immunity from suit. Nor is there any dispute that this immunity exists unless limited by Congress or waived by the tribe,” the high court said in the opinion.

However, the court continued, StoreVisions had reason to believe the tribal chairman and vice chairman had authority to sign the waiver. The two officials had approved the contracts, and the waiver was signed at tribal headquarters in the presence of several members of the tribal council, the court said.

Attorneys in the case didn't immediately respond to messages left March 25.

The tribe had hired StoreVisions to complete 11 building projects since April 2008, according to the copies of the agreements filed in district court. Those projects included work on the tribe's casinos, racetrack, convenience store, sports complex and RV park. Copies of StoreVisions' work estimates filed in district court indicate the contracts were worth more than $690,000.

Attorneys have declined in the past to specify how much was unpaid because the case has not been resolved.

The tribe said in its appeal that the waiver wasn't enforceable because the seven-member tribal council did not pass a resolution authorizing the waiver or giving the chairman and vice chairman the power to authorize it. The tribe contends its constitution and bylaws require such a resolution.

StoreVisions had argued in court filings that the waiver is valid because it was signed by the chairman and vice chairman at tribal headquarters in the presence of three council members.

For the tribe's “two highest officials, along with three of the five remaining council members to bear witness to the signing of the waiver and now claim that its execution was invalid certainly does not bode well for the integrity of the (tribe),” the company said in court documents.

StoreVisions also said the Omaha Tribe's constitution and bylaws provide no guidance on the process required for a waiver of sovereign immunity or who has the power the authorize such a waiver.

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Online:

Nebraska Supreme Court: http://www.supremecourt.ne.gov

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