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A $248 million award to the Cayuga Indian Nation of New York for land dispossession more than 200 years ago has been reversed by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Citing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling released earlier this year, a divided circuit panel found that New York state must prevail because of the long delay by the Cayuga Nation in pursuing its claim for ejectment of the defendant land owners and immediate repossession of its land. The decision, written by Judge Jose A. Cabranes, reverses Northern District of New York Judge Neil P. McCurn, who found that treaties signed in 1795 and 1807 between the Cayuga Nation and the state were not properly ratified by the federal government and were invalid under the Nonintercourse Act, 25 U.S.C. �177. McCurn’s ruling was followed by a jury award of $36.9 million. In a subsequent hearing, the judge found the Indians were entitled to $211 million in prejudgment interest. The Cayugas’ action focused on 64,015 acres of land that encompassed the nation’s “original reservation” — the parcels that were exempted from the Cayugas’ decision to cede all of their lands to New York in a treaty signed in 1789. Five years after the 1790 passage of the first Nonintercourse Act, which requires the consent of the federal government to any tribal land sale, the Cayugas sold the entire original reservation to New York except for a three-square mile area on the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake in exchange for the promise to pay $1,800 per year in perpetuity. That remaining portion was sold to New York for $4,800 in a second treaty in 1807. The complaint was filed in 1980 and the Northern District Court certified a defendant class of landowners with respect to liability and then named the Miller Brewing Company as class representative. In 1991, the court rejected the defendants’ defenses of abandonment and laches — the equitable doctrine that bars the assertion of claims where the plaintiffs have delayed enforcement of their rights, and the condition of the defendants has changed so much that it cannot be restored to its former state. One year later, the United States motion to intervene in the case on behalf of the plaintiffs was granted. McCurn’s final ruling on prejudgment interest came in 2001, and the 2nd Circuit accepted the case in 2002. Writing for the court in Cayuga Indian Nation of New York v. Pataki, 02-6111, Cabranes said the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation, 125 S.Ct. 1478, “has dramatically altered the legal landscape against which we consider plaintiffs’ claims.” In Sherrill, the Court rejected a claim that the Oneidas made invoking their ancient sovereignty to discrete parcels of historic reservation land. The Oneidas had claimed that their sovereignty left them free from the obligation to pay property taxes on the parcels. “We understand Sherrill to hold that equitable doctrines, such as laches, acquiescence, and impossibility, can, in appropriate circumstances, be applied to Indian land claims, even when such a claim is legally viable and within the statute of limitations,” Cabranes said. The Sherrill Court also made it clear, Cabranes said, that its ruling does not “disturb” its holding in County of Oneida v. Oneida Indian Nation, 470 U.S. 226 (1995) ( Oneida II), “which allowed Indian Tribes to seek fair rental value damages for violation of their possessory rights following an ancient dispossession. “Because the Supreme Court in Oneida II expressly declined to decide whether laches would apply to such claims … this statement in Sherrill is not dispositive of whether laches would apply here,” he said. However, while the Supreme Court did not identify a standard for deciding when equitable defenses apply, Cabranes said, “the broadness” of the Court’s statements indicates that the holding in Sherrill “is not narrowly limited to claims identical to that brought by the Oneidas, seeking revival of sovereignty, but rather, that these equitable defenses apply to ‘disruptive’ Indian land claims more generally.” While the Cayuga Nation’s claims do not involve a reinstatement of tribal sovereignty, he said, “this case involves comparably disruptive claims, and other, comparable remedies are in fact, at issue.” The Cayugas, despite prevailing on money damages, have from the beginning sought the ejection of the defendants and immediate possession of the land as their “preferred form of relief,” the judge said, a claim in which “disruptiveness is inherent.” ‘PAINSTAKING EFFORTS’ The court closed by noting the “thoughtful and painstaking efforts” of McCurn over the course of the marathon litigation. It said that he handled the case with “fairness and due regard to the rights and interests of all parties as well as with a keen appreciation of the complexities of the subject matter and of the relevant law.” “Our decision is based on a subsequent ruling by the Supreme Court, which could not be anticipated by Judge McCurn,” said Cabranes, who was joined in his opinion by Judge Rosemary Pooler A partial dissent in the case was issued by Judge Janet Hall of the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut, sitting by designation. Hall said she could not agree with the majority that “laches bars all of the plaintiffs’ remedies, including those for money damages.” Martin R. Gold, Raymond J. Heslin and Robert P. Mulvey of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal represented the Cayugas. Howard L. Zwickel, Caitlan J. Halligan, Peter H. Schiff, Andrew D. Bing, Sachin Pandya and Brian Kreiswirth of the Attorney General’s Office represented Governor George E. Pataki.

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