Court rules tribes immune from discrimination law
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Tribes aren't subject to the provisions of an age discrimination law, a federal appeals court ruled on Monday in a case with nationwide implications.

The Karuk Tribe of California does not have to comply with the terms of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said. To do so would "ignore the special status of the Tribe, and subject the Tribe to an unnecessary" burden, said the court.

The tribe, therefore, can ignore an investigation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a national board charged with eliminating discrimination in the workplace. The EEOC was looking into the firing of a tribal employee.

In 1998, Robert Grant, who is also a tribal member, filed a complaint with the EEOC, alleging he was fired due to his age. He was 53 at the time and was employed by the tribe's housing authority.

As part of its powers, the EEOC tried to force the tribe to answer questions about Grant's termination. But the tribe refused the commission's subpoena, charging the discrimination law does not apply.

The EEOC subsequently brought a lawsuit in federal court against the tribe, seeking to enforce the subpoena. In May 2000, a federal judge in California sided with the government and ordered the tribe to cooperate with the investigation.

In the ruling, Judge Maxine M. Chesney stated the law -- even though it does not specifically mention tribes -- applies to Indian Country because it doesn't infringe on tribal self-governance or internal relations.

But the 9th Circuit reversed that holding yesterday. Since the tribe was operating its housing authority under the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act (NAHASDA), subjecting it to the EEOC's powers would step on the tribe's sovereignty, said the court.

"[T]he ADEA does not apply in these circumstances," wrote the court. "Thus, the EEOC is without regulatory jurisdiction over the Tribe."

The tribe had also challenged the lawsuit altogether, citing sovereign immunity. The court, however, rejected this argument, stating that tribes can't avoid lawsuits filed by the federal government.

NAHASDA was first passed in 1996. It specifically recognizes tribal self-governance and allows tribes to administer federal housing funds for their own purposes.

Set to expire, Indian housing leaders and tribal leaders have called for its reuathorization. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), vice chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, has introduced a bill to reuathorize the act for another five years.

Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) has introduced the House version.

Get the Case:

Get the Bill:
A bill to reauthorize the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996 (S.1210)

Relevant Links:
NAHASDA, US Dept of Housing and Urban Development -
National Indian Housing Council -
Office of Public and Indian Housing -
Native Americans, HUD -
Housing Authorities / Tribes, HUD -
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -

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