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Supreme Court Issues Opinion in Grazing Permit Quiet Title Matter

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The Navajo Nation Supreme Court recently issued its opinion in the Matter of Quiet Title to Livestock Grazing Permit No. 8-487 Formerly Held by Martha Francis, No. SC-CV-41-09, reversing the Kayenta Family Court’s decision to dismiss the matter for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

The case was originally dismissed by the family court because it stated that pursuant to Navajo Nation Council Resolution CO-59-03, the Office of Hearings and Appeals is the proper forum for grazing permit disputes. The Supreme Court disagreed and held that Resolution No. CO-59-03, which transferred responsibility to resolve land boundaries and grazing rights disputes form the Resources Committee to the Office of Hearings and Appeals, did not establish the OHA as the exclusive forum for grazing permit disputes and did not divest the family courts of their authority in these matters. The Supreme Court said the fact of the matter is that the OHA was not authorized to hear quiet title or probate actions and remanded the case back to the family court for more hearings.

It was firmly established before the passage of Resolution No. CO-59-03, that the family court held jurisdiction on probate and quiet title actions as common law. Maintaining all cases that involve family matters, including domestic relations and probate, was part of why family courts were established at 7 N.N.C. § 253 (B).

In this particular case, the family court should not have dismissed it as the involvement of a decedent who orally distributed her grazing permit to family members during her lifetime was involved. The argument is that the distribution may not have been completed due to disputes and inaction by the grazing committee. According to a press release from the Supreme Court, the family initially sought a grazing committee resolution after the decedent passed. When the resolution was obtained, the family pursued a peacemaking probate, which was stalled due to disputes, and the matter was brought back to the grazing committee. Finally, the disputing family member filed a quiet title action after 10 years had passed with no grazing committee decision.

In the Supreme Court’s opinion statement the family court must look into whether the decedent perfected a transfer of the permit during her lifetime or effected an oral will and addressed the 5-year statutory probate filing deadline. In the Courts outcome, it noticed that none of the three forums and actions pursued by the family members were wrong in attempting to give effect to the decedent’s wishes, they served to toll the probate deadlines.

In a footnote to it’s opinion, the Court stated that a late filing does not mean that a decedent’s estate may never be legally distributed and that family members can still seek distribution of the estate through intestate administration after the statute of limitations has passed.