Dollar General Owner Can Be Sued in Tribal Court

By Brett Snider, Esq. on March 20, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Tribal court jurisdiction can be tricky, but the Fifth Circuit seemed to simplify it in a case where a Native American minor was allegedly molested at a Dollar General.

Dolgencorp, which operates a Dollar General on a Choctaw Reservation in Mississippi, is being sued by a Choctaw minor who was employed in the store as part of a Youth Opportunity Program (YOP) training program. Unfortunately, while employed there, the minor alleges that the manager, a non-tribe member, molested him.

The Fifth Circuit found that the tribal courts do have jurisdiction over the minor's tort claim against Dolgencorp, but why?

When Do Tribal Courts Have Jurisdiction?

In Dolgencorp v. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, Dolgencorp had attempted to extricate itself from Choctaw's tribal courts by filing in federal district court seeking to enjoin the tribal courts from proceeding on the minor's (John Doe's) tort claims. Unfortunately, the Fifth Circuit determined that the tribal court retained jurisdiction under the Montana test.

The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in Montana v. U.S. that even non-members on non-tribal land could be rightfully regulated by tribal government, so long as they had "enter[ed] consensual relationships with the tribe or its members, through commercial dealing, contracts, leases, or other arrangements." Though SCOTUS has yet to speak directly to the jurisdiction of tribal courts in this sort of tort, it has recognized the importance of tribal courts to a tribe's self-governance.

The Eighth Circuit determined that tribal courts did have jurisdiction for tort claims over non-members, so long as there is a proper nexus between the conduct/relationship of the defendant and the Montana rules.

Here, the Fifth Circuit determined that the agreement to employ Doe under the YOP at Dollar General created a sufficient consensual relationship between Dolgencorp and the Choctaw tribe to establish jurisdiction for Doe's tort claims. Even though Doe was essentially an unpaid intern, the YOP contract was for the Dollar General's commercial benefit, and it opened itself to be regulated by the tribal courts with regard to that relationship.

Punitive Damages

An interesting legal twist was that Doe requested punitive damages (up to $2.5 million when combined with compensatory) and Dolgencorp believed no tribal court could require that of a non-member.

Wrong. Although it is true that tribal courts are prohibited from criminally punishing non-tribe members, punitive damages are not the same thing as penal jurisdiction. Though Dolgencorp worries that this leaves it at the hands of a tribal court where 14th Amendment Due Process claims may not apply, the Fifth Circuit applied the legal version of "tough cookies."

Bottom Line

If you consensually enter into an agreement -- especially for commercial purposes -- with an Indian tribe, you will likely be bound by their tribal courts' jurisdiction for injuries that arise from that relationship.

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