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Navajo Supreme Court Upholds Nation’s Regulatory Authority Over Power Plant Employment October 31, 2007

Posted by rezjudicata in Navajo Supreme Court, Tribal Courts.
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Thinn v. Navajo Generating Station, SC-CV-25-06, slip op. (Nav. Sup. Ct. October 19, 2007) 

Issue(s): Administrative Law > Agency Jurisdiction >> Subject Matter Jurisdiction; Navajo Fundamental Law > Governmental Powers & Duties >> Waiver

The Navajo Generating Station is a power plant operating on Navajo trust lands pursuant to a lease between the Navajo Nation and several utilities. The appellants worked for the Station and a subcontractor. The station and subcontractor terminated the appellants employment. Appellants then filed complaints with the Navajo Nation Labor Commission arguing that the terminations violated the Navajo Preference in Employment Act, 15 N.N.C. § 604 et. seq. The Station countered–and the Commission agreed–that the Commission lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the dispute because the aforementioned lease waived the Nation’s regulatory authority over employment at the plant.

The Supreme Court responded that only “unmistakable,” unambiguous words of the Council can waive governmental authority. Clarity or ambiguity in the waiver is determined by examining the waiver’s language, the agreement as a whole and the legal context of the waiver’s adoption. According to the Court, the term “operation” did not unmistakably include “employment.” The Court reasoned that the lease never defined the term, which could mean mechanical or technical operation of the plant; and other sections of the lease that specifically contemplated employment showed that employment was not intended to be part of the general waiver. Next, the Court looked to Navajo Fundamental Law to gauge the legal context of the lease. Under Navajo Fundamental Law, public officials have a fiduciary duty to protect the rights of the tribe and government. This includes the duty to protect both employees and employers because employment is “central to…the well being of the people.” Thinn, slip op. at 8. The Council could not delegate employment regulation to a non-Navajo entity because doing so would violate its fiduciary duties. Therefore, the Council could not legally have understood “operation” to include “employment” when it signed the lease. Finding the lease provision ambiguous, the Court reversed the Commission, upholding the Nation’s authority to regulate employment at the power plant.

Finally, the Court held that the apparently contradictory 9th Circuit decision Arizona Public Service Co. v. Aspaas, 77 F.3d 1128 (1996) was not binding on the Navajo courts. The Court reasoned that federal courts must defer to interpretations of tribal law by the tribe’s highest court just like state law and state courts.

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