BISMARCK, N.D. (Legal Newsline) – The North Dakota Supreme Court recently awarded attorney fees to defendants in a Native American tort claim case, overturning a district court decision.
Defendants Don Bruce, Vinier Davis and Linda Davis appealed a district court’s decision to deny their request for attorney fees. On Feb. 16, the Supreme Court overturned the decision, requiring plaintiffs Joni Tillich, Nicole LaFloe, Shawn Marcellais, Lisa DeCoteau and Lynn Boughey to pay the defendants’ attorney fees in a tort claim case.
According to the decision, the decision was overturned because state law requires a court to award reasonable attorney fees to the prevailing party when a claim is deemed frivolous by the court, according to the opinion.
In addition, the court instructed the district court to award attorney fees after fees are calculated using acceptable factors.
In January 2015, Tillich and the others filed a complaint alleging a tort claim for abuse of power based on an action filed in Turtle Mountain Tribal Court. Attorneys on behalf of Bruce and the other defendants argued that the complaint raised several defenses of lack of subject matter jurisdiction, lack of personal jurisdiction, and alleged the claim to be frivolous. At this time, the defendants asked that the lack of subject matter and personal jurisdiction claims be dismissed and requested attorney fees and statutory costs for defending the action.
After a hearing, the court changed the motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment because issues outside the pleadings were presented. Primarily, the defendants argued that the district court lacked jurisdiction because the plaintiffs’ action was a tort claim against members of a federally recognized Indian tribe for actions that allegedly occurred between tribal members within the exterior boundaries of the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation.
The district court granted the summary judgment and dismissed the claim without prejudice. Additionally, the court found the plaintiffs’ claim frivolous and stated the defendants’ attorneys were owed fees.
However, after further consideration of the totality of the circumstances relating to the time and resources in the case, the district court denied awarding fees to the defendants' attorney.
To make its decision, the court also measured the conduct of both parties in these proceedings and the presence of another action involving both attorneys and a similar jurisdictional issue in a companion case.
According to the decision, the district court abused its discretion by failing to award any attorney fees after it deemed the action the frivolous and “unsupported by any good faith argument for a modification of the law."