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Watso v. Piper

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

December 5, 2017

Kimberly Watso, individually and on behalf of C.H. and C.P., her minor children, and Kaleen Dietrich, Plaintiffs,
Emily Piper in her official capacity as Commissioner of the Department of Human Services; Scott County; Tribal Court of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Dakota Community; Judge John E. Jacobson, in his official capacity; Tribal Court of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians; Judge Mary Ringhand, in her official capacity; Isaac Hall; and Donald Perkins, Defendants.



         In this Report and Recommendation, the Court addresses the following dispositive motions, which were referred to the undersigned by the District Court:

(1) The Tribal Court of the Shakopee Mdewkanton Sioux (Dakota) Community and Judge John E. Jacobson's Motion to Dismiss, ECF No. 12;
(2) Emily Piper's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint, ECF No. 29;
(3) Defendant Scott County's Motion to Dismiss, ECF No. 46;
(4) The Tribal Court of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians and Judge Mary Ringhand's Motion to Dismiss, ECF No. 53.[1]

         The Court held a hearing on these motions on May 25, 2017. For the reasons that follow, the Court recommends that each of the motions be granted and this matter be dismissed.


         This case involves child welfare proceedings in the Tribal Court of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux (Dakota) Community (the “SMSC Court”) and the Tribal Court of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians (the “Red Lake Band Court”). Kimberly Watso is the biological mother of two minor children, C.H. and C.P. Compl. ¶ 1, ECF No. 1. Ms. Watso is a non-Indian, id.; C.H. is a member of the Shakopee Mdewakanton (Dakota) Community (“SMSC”), id. ¶¶ 3, 30; and C.P. is a member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians (“Red Lake Band”), id. ¶¶ 2, 27. Isaac Hall is C.H.'s father, id. ¶ 15; and Donald Perkins is the father of C.P, id. ¶ 14.

         On January 22, 2015, a representative of the SMSC Family and Children Services Department filed an emergency ex parte petition in the SMSC Court seeking a determination that C.P. and C.H were children in need of assistance, and asking to transfer custody to the SMSC's Child Welfare Office.[3] See Watso v. Jacobson, et al. (“Watso I”), No. 16-cv-983 (PJS/HB), Doc. No. 1 ¶ 52 (D. Minn. May 31, 2016) (Petition); id. at Doc. No. 14 (Exhibit A, Emergency Ex Parte Pet. for Children in Need of Assistance). Three days later, the SMSC Court determined that the matter should not be heard ex parte and found that the parents should be present. SMSC's Ex. A, ECF No. 17.

         On February 24, 2015, Ms. Watso and Mr. Hall brought C.H. to a medical clinic for an examination of C.H.'s head. Compl. ¶ 18. As a result of that visit, a report of possible child abuse was made against Ms. Watso and Mr. Hall. Id. ¶ 19. A detective with the Shakopee Police Department issued a Notice of 72-Hour Police Health and Safety Hold notifying the parents that C.H. and C.P. would be held at Children's Hospital.[4] Compl., Ex. 3 (“72-Hour Hold”). No child welfare proceedings were initiated in the state court in Scott County. Id. ¶ 20.

         The Complaint states that “on February 25, 2015, Scott County referred and transferred the C.H. and C.P. matters to SMSC's social service agency for tribal court proceedings.” Compl. ¶ 129; see also Id. ¶¶ 20, 131. However, an exhibit attached to the Complaint indicates that on February 25th, the SMSC Court received an Emergency Ex Parte Motion to Transfer Legal and Physical Custody of C.H. and C.P. as part of the pre-existing child welfare proceedings described above. Compl., Ex. 4. Though the motion to remove the children from their parents' custody was originally filed ex parte, Ms. Watso was notified of the motion at some point and filed an objection to the SMSC Court's exercise of jurisdiction in the child welfare proceeding. Id. ¶¶ 130-36. The SMSC Court rejected Ms. Watso's arguments and issued orders related to the custody and care of the children. See Id. ¶ 137; id., Ex. 4. The SMSC Court also rejected Ms. Watso's argument that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction because a Minnesota state court did not first determine that jurisdiction should be transferred to a tribal court. Id., Ex. 5 at 4. Eventually, on January 17, 2017, the SMSC Court granted the Red Lake Band's motion to dismiss the tribal court proceedings concerning C.P., who is a Red Lake Band member, “allowing the Red Lake Nation to take jurisdiction over C.P.” Id. ¶¶ 21, 142.

         The present lawsuit is not Ms. Watso's first related to these matters. A previous federal case, styled as a habeas petition, was voluntarily dismissed as moot on February 10, 2017, id. ¶ 146, and this case was filed on February 23, 2017. In this case, just as she previously argued to the SMSC Court, Ms. Watso essentially asserts that the tribal child welfare proceedings that have taken place in the SMSC Court and the Red Lake Band Court are invalid because the Scott County District Court did not first decide that it was proper for the tribal courts to exercise jurisdiction.

         At the time this case was filed, Kaleen Dietrich, who is the maternal grandmother of C.H. and C.P., was caring for C.P. pursuant to an order of the Red Lake Band Court. Compl. ¶ 34. C.H. was under the care of Allene Ross[5] pursuant to an order of the SMSC Court. Id. ¶ 36. The Complaint ambiguously alleges that “C.H. and C.P. do not reside [as of February 23, 2017] and are not domiciled within the boundaries of Red Lake Nation of Chippewa Indians, ” id. ¶ 25, but there are no allegations setting forth where the children lived when the child welfare proceedings commenced.


         Ms. Watso alleges that the “transfer” of the child welfare proceedings was contrary to the Indian Child Welfare Act (“ICWA”), 25 U.S.C. § 1914, her federal constitutional rights, and other provisions of federal law. She “seeks dismissal of both tribal court proceedings without prejudice and remand to [MNDHS] and Scott County for Scott County and [MNDHS]” so that any child-welfare decisions concerning C.H. and C.P. are made by a State court rather than a tribal court. See Compl. ¶ 147. Although the Complaint originally included four separate counts, each containing multiple claims against various defendants, the issues have been considerably narrowed by stipulation of the parties. ECF No. 71.[6]

         Currently before the Court are the following more limited claims. Count I of the Complaint is most clearly stated as a claim against the SMSC Court and the Red Lake Band Court. It is possible that the plaintiffs also intend to assert a claim in Count I against Judge Jacobson and Judge Ringhand for their actions in the tribal court proceedings. The plaintiffs seek a declaration invalidating the tribal court child-welfare proceedings pursuant to the Indian Child Welfare Act, 25 U.S.C. § 1914. They also request an injunction requiring the SMSC Court and the Red Lake Band Court to dismiss their respective child custody proceedings for lack of jurisdiction. Compl. ¶¶ 148-57. Finally, as part of Count I, Ms. Watso asks the Court to enjoin Scott County to “re-initiate its administrative proceedings regarding C.H. and C.P. and to comply with this Court's decision, ICWA and MIFPA.” Id. ¶ 157.

         Count III of the Complaint is asserted against the DHS Commissioner and Scott County. In Count III, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the plaintiffs allege that the DHS Commissioner and Scott County violated their rights under the United States Constitution (due process and equal protection) and the Indian Child Welfare Act. Id. ¶¶ 168-77.

         As explained below, at its most fundamental, all of the claims against all of the remaining defendants rely upon a particular statutory analysis proffered by the plaintiffs. However, because that analysis is incorrect, it undermines the plaintiffs' entire theory of the case.


         I. Count I: State and Tribal Jurisdiction

         Although the precise contours of the plaintiffs' primary argument are not spelled out clearly in the Complaint or in their response to the motions to dismiss, at the hearing plaintiffs' counsel articulated an interpretation of several federal statutes that forms the lynchpin of the assertion that the tribal court proceedings must be invalidated. The plaintiffs' argument relies on an interpretation of the intersection of the Indian Child Welfare Act (“ICWA”) and a specific provision of what is commonly referred to as Public Law 280. However, careful examination of both statutes and the case law interpreting them reveals the errors in the plaintiffs' reasoning.

         A. The Relevant Statutes

         In order to understand the flaws in the plaintiffs' legal position, the Court must first examine the provisions and purposes of the two statutes upon which they rely, and of the tribal code which they disregard.

         Public Law 280

         In 1953, Congress enacted Public Law 83-280, commonly known as PL 280, which delegated jurisdiction to a handful of enumerated states over many criminal and civil matters that arose on the “Indian country” within those states.

Each of the States listed in the following table shall have jurisdiction over civil causes of action between Indians or to which Indians are parties which arise in the areas of Indian country listed opposite the name of the State to the same extent that such State has jurisdiction over other civil causes of action, and those civil laws of such State that are of general application to private persons or private property shall have the same force and effect within such Indian country as they have elsewhere within the State[.]

28 U.S.C. § 1360(a). Most of the reservations within the state of Minnesota, including SMSC, are covered by PL 280, but the Red Lake Band is not. Importantly, although PL 280 gave jurisdiction over some matters to states, it left intact the inherent tribal jurisdiction over many of these matters that preceded the statute.[7] Cohen's Handbook of Federal Inidan Law § 6.04[3][c], at 555 (Nell Jessup Newton ed., 2012) (hereinafter “Cohen's Handbook”) (“The nearly unanimous view among tribal courts, state courts, lower federal courts, state attorneys general, the Solicitor's Office for the Department of the interior, and legal scholars is that Public Law 280 left the inherent civil and criminal jurisdiction of Indian nations untouched.”); see also Walker v. Rushing, 898 F.2d 672, 675 (8th Cir. 1990) (“Nothing in the wording of Public Law 280 or its legislative history precludes concurrent tribal authority.”) (citing Cohen's Handbook of Federal Indian Law at 344 (1982)). PL 280 thus gave rise to state authority over some matters in Indian Country, but did not invalidate tribal sovereignty or tribal court jurisdiction over most of these arenas.

         Indian Child Welfare Act

         The Indian Child Welfare Act was adopted in 1978 in response to the extremely high numbers of Indian children removed from their families and communities through state court child welfare proceedings.[8] ICWA is codified at 25 U.S.C. §§ 1901-1963. In its broadest terms, ICWA “constructs a statutory scheme to prevent states from improperly removing Indian children from their parents, extended families and tribes . . . . It functions to expand and enhance tribal power over decision-making regarding [Indian] families.” Cohen's Handbook, § 11.01[1], at 830. Although ICWA is a lengthy and complex statute, only a few provisions are relevant here.

         First, section 1911 contains language addressing tribal jurisdiction over “Indian child custody proceeding[s].” One provision of this section addresses the “exclusive jurisdiction” of Indian tribes:

An Indian tribe shall have jurisdiction exclusive as to any State over any child custody proceeding involving an Indian child who resides or is domiciled within the reservation of such tribe, except where such jurisdiction is otherwise vested in the State by existing Federal law. Where an Indian child is a ward of a tribal court, the Indian tribe ...

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