In Lewis v. Clarke, Docket No. 15-1500, decided April 25, 2017 by the Supreme Court of the United States, the Court reversed the Connecticut Supreme Court, 230 Conn. 706 (2016), on the issue of tribal immunity as applied to suits against employees of a sovereign tribe in their individual capacity.
In Lewis, the plaintiffs were injured in an automobile accident allegedly caused by the negligence of Clarke, an employee of the Mohegan tribe. At the time of the accident, Clarke was driving on a state highway in the course of his employment. The defendant moved to dismiss for tribal sovereign immunity. The trial court denied the motion. The Connecticut Supreme Court reversed, holding that tribal sovereign immunity applied to bar the suit. The plaintiffs’ petitioned for certification to the Supreme Court of the United States, which was granted.
The Supreme Court of the United States held that tribal sovereign immunity does not bar suits against tribal employees in their individual capacity even if the tort occurred within the scope of the employment. The Court further decided that tribal sovereign immunity still does not apply even where there is a statute which provides that the tribe will indemnify the individual employee. The application of sovereign immunity is determined by an analysis of the real party in interest: who will be legally bound by the action, not who will pay the judgment.
In cases against employees in their official capacity, the real party in interest is the sovereign and so immunity applies. In this case, the real party in interest was the individual defendant. As such, tribal sovereign immunity does not bar the suit. The Court analyzed tribal sovereign immunity in the same manner as state sovereign immunity.
Attorneys Dana Hrelic and Karen Dowd authored a brief on behalf of Amici Curiae Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association and American Association for Justice in support of the plaintiffs. The brief was co-authored by Attorneys Michael D’Amico, President of CTLA, Jeremy D’Amico, both of D’Amico & Pettinicchi, LLC, and Jeffrey White, AAJ Associate General Counsel.