Senecas Score Second Circuit Victory


By Isaac White.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that a motion submitted by the state of New York to have a case brought by the Seneca Nation thrown out was denied on January 26th, allowing the lawsuit to continue forward.

This action was initiated by the Seneca Nation in an effort to compel the defendants to stop using an invalid easement on land belonging to them. The litigation is the result of an agreement made in 1954 between the Seneca Nation, and the state of New York, acting through the New York State Thruway Authority.

In that agreement, the Seneca Nation gave New York an easement for about 300 acres of tribal land on the Cattaraugus Reservation. The State was allowed to build a part of the State Thruway of New York. New York gave $75,000 to the Seneca Nation as payment.

At the time of the agreement, the federal law commonly known as the “Non-Intercourse Act,” said that the United States had to agree to any easement over Indian land. The Seneca Nation complaint asserts the 1954 agreement did not get this kind of approval.

In 1993, the Seneca Nation sued New York State, the New York Thruway Authority, and the Executive Director of the Thruway Authority. The Nation wanted to get rid of the easement because New York State didn’t follow the Non-Intercourse Act. They also asked for eviction and damages. The suit was thrown out when the District Court determined that New York was immune from that suit under Federal Rules.

The Nation filed the current complaint on April 11, 2018, in District Court, stating that the operation of the Thruway continues to be unauthorized while also reiterating New York does not hold a valid easement for the land in dispute.

According to the Court’s decision, “The complaint alleges that the continuing use of the Thruway, ‘violates the federal treaties and laws establishing the Reservation and protecting it against alienation,’ such as the Canandaigua Treaty of 1794, and also violates federal law regulating easements across Indian lands.”

New York argued that the 1993 case brought by the Seneca Nation prohibited the Nation from bringing the current suit under collateral estoppel. Collateral estoppel is a rule of law that forbids a party from bringing up a dispute that has already been settled in a court case or administrative hearing, even if the dispute relates to a distinct claim.

In that previous case, which the Circuit Court described as ‘Seneca I’, they determined that it was based on a narrow law issue. They further explained that Seneca I did not prohibit the Seneca Nation from bringing another suit seeking relief from other New York officials. The Circuit Court ultimately determined that New York’s motion to dismiss was not persuasive and ruled in favor of the Seneca Nation.

The Court also acknowledged the validity of the Seneca Nation’s claim of continuing harm by the State’s continued use of land through the 1954 easement. The Court found also, “The Supreme Court has noted that easements ‘burden land that continues to be owned by another.’

The Court also noted that a significant factor in their decision was that the Seneca Nation seeks no monetary damages.

Per the Court’s decision, “But here the Nation seeks no monetary damages for past use of the easement. Instead, it seeks to compel defendants to ‘obtain a valid easement for the portion of the Nation’s Reservation on which the Thruway is situated on terms that will in the future equitably compensate the Nation pro rata for future use of its lands.’

Another important view of the Court is their recognition that the Seneca Nation holds title to the land in question. They go on to say New York only holds an interest in the land because of the easement the Seneca Nation has laid out to be illegal under federal law. To even expand upon their position, the Court determined that New York has not historically governed the land in question, another major win for the Senecas.

Such a definitive and assertive decision in favor of the Seneca Nation on this matter will ultimately serve to allow the case to move along the course of the U.S. Justice system.

This is a crucial victory for the Seneca Nation in their fight to undo the harm caused by their allegation that the easement for purposes of operating the Thruway is illegal under federal law, and that the continuance of New York operating such prevents them from fully enjoying their land for the use and benefit of the Seneca people.

“After fighting New York’s overreaching actions for decades, on the Thruway and other issues, this is an important victory, Seneca Nation President Rickey Armstrong Sr. said, Our arguments on behalf of our people deserve to be heard in court. The Thruway is a 300-acre scar on our Cattaraugus Territory that New York State inflicted on our people without proper authorization from the Department of Interior or in compliance with the promises made to us by treaty. We intend to make sure that state officials finally comply with federal law for this invasion of our land.”

As this case progresses forward, Indian Time will continue to update reporting on the matter.


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