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Hoopa Court of Appeals Rules on Death Benefits for Volunteer Workers January 25, 2008

Posted by rezjudicata in Hoopa Valley Tribal Court of Appeals, Tribal Courts.
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Cooper v. Hoopa Valley Tribal Council, No. C-03-065 (Hoopa App. Dec. __ , 2007)

Issue(s): Tribal Sovereign Immunity > Waiver; Employee Benefits > Death Benefits >> Volunteer Workers

By resolution, the Hoopa Valley Tribal Council extended the Tribe’s Worker’s Compensation Insurance coverage to volunteer workers. The worker’s compensation statute fixes death benefits at “four times the annual earnings from the Hoopa Valley Tribal Council.” Cooper’s father worked as a volunteer firefighter for the Tribe. Responding to an emergency call one day, he died in a car accident. Does the Tribe have to pay death benefits?

The Hoopa Valley Court of Appeals found that it did not. As a preliminary matter, the Court held that the Tribe was not immune from suit in this case. By permitting judicial review and capping monetary damages in the worker’s compensation statute, the Tribe unequivocally had waived its immunity.

Turning to death benefits, the Court held that the compensation statute covered Cooper’s father. Cooper argued that the Court should interpret the statute under California law because the Tribe drew on California law to draft the statute. The Court, however, saw no reason to import state law when a plain reading of the statute could resolve the issue. The statute laid out a strict formula for calculating death benefits: four times the worker’s annual earnings. Cooper’s father was a volunteer and therefore had no earnings. Using the statutory formula, Cooper’s father’s death benefit equaled zero. The Court recognized the possible inequity of this interpretation. But it stated that it was up to the Tribal legislators to fill this apparent policy gap. The Court therefore reversed the death benefit award.

[Special thanks to Professor Matthew L.M. Fletcher for providing us with a copy of this opinion, which he authored. If you haven’t already, please visit his blog at turtletalk.wordpress.com]

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