Supreme Court Issues Decision in Lewis v. Clark >>

April 25th, 2017

Supreme Court Issues Decision in Lewis v. Clark

Today, the Supreme Court issued an 8-0 opinion in Lewis v. Clark (docket 15-1500), holding that in a suit brought against a tribal employee in his individual capacity, the employee, not the tribe, is the real party in interest and the tribe’s sovereign immunity is not implicated.

The Court found a clear distinction between a defendant in an official capacity action (where the relief sought is only nominally against the official and in fact is against the official’s office and the sovereign itself), who may assert sovereign immunity, and a defendant in an individual capacity, who can only assert the personal immunity defense of official immunity.

The opinion was authored by Justice Sotomayor and was joined by Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Breyer, Alito, and Kagen. Justices Thomas and Ginsburg filed concurring opinions. Justice Gorsuch did not take part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Background

The case stems from a 2011 car accident between a limousine owned by the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority and a man named Brian Lewis. Lewis claimed he was injured as a result of limo driver William Clarke’s negligent and careless driving. Clark, a Mohegan employee, moved to dismiss the complaint arguing that because he was driving the limousine as an employee of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because he was entitled to tribal sovereign immunity.

The trial court denied the motion, finding that the doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity did not apply because Lewis sought damages from Clarke personally, not from the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority. The Connecticut Supreme Court reversed and held that tribal sovereign immunity extended to Clarke as a member of the tribe acting within the scope of his employment as a limousine driver with the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority.

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