SCOTUS News, April 28th, 2017: Lewis v. Clarke

A relatively quiet week for the Supreme Court. SCOTUS heard several arguments on patents, ineffective counsel, and other matters. Only one opinion was released.

Lewis v. Clarke

Respondent Clarke was driving in his capacity for the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut when he rear-ended the Lewises. Important to this case is that the Lewises sued Clarke in his individual capacity. Their original lawsuit did not implicate the Tribe or its Gaming Authority. Clarke moved to dismiss this suit, however. He cited the fact that he was acting in his official capacity, and thus was entitled to tribal sovereign immunity, as well as indemnification by the Tribe for the damages sought in the suit. The trial court denied this motion. Because the suit did not implicate the Tribe in any way, the trial court ruled Clarke could not claim their sovereign protections. The Supreme Court of Connecticut reversed this ruling. They held that because Clarke was acting in his official capacity, tribal sovereign immunity controlled in his case. Clarke further argued that the Gaming Authority had to indemnify him, pursuant to their own statutes. Since the Supreme Court of Connecticut ruled that Clarke acted in his official capacity, they chose not to rule on the indemnification burden.

SCOTUS reversed and remanded. Their line of thinking adheres closely to the original trial court’s. They hold that tribal immunity is not implicated in this case. The Lewises filed a tort claim against Clarke in an individual capacity. They did not implicate the Tribe or its Gaming Authority in any way, which means sovereign immunity does not apply. The factual circumstances are of utmost importance. Tribal sovereign immunity does extend to those employees who “have been acting in the discharge of [their] duties or within the scope of [their] employment.” But this does not extend to “wanton, reckless, or malicious” acts, like the car accident that began this case. Since Clarke committed the accident within the State of Connecticut, on State lands, tribal sovereign immunity simply does not apply.

The Supreme Court rules against the case’s second issue, concerning the indemnification provision. SCOTUS holds that the indemnification provision does not extend to individuals. The Tribe could choose to indemnify Clarke, and pay the tort claim to the Lewises. But the Tribe is not inherently liable, just because they might in other circumstances indemnify an employee. Additionally, the Tribe could decide not to indemnify, based on the Mohegan indemnification provision’s “wanton, reckless, or malicious” clause.

Sotomayor wrote for a six-member majority. Thomas and Ginsburg both separately concurred, citing slight differences of opinion with the majority. As with most case opinions that will be released from the rest of this term, Justice Gorsuch was not on hand for argument or consideration.


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