On September 9, the Navajo Nation Supreme Court reversed a district court’s dismissal in the case Joe Doe BF v. Diocese of Gallup, et al., No. SC-CV-06-10.
The case was a personal injury action against a Catholic priest and diocese alleging that the priest had sexually abused a Navajo member twenty years ago when he was a teenager.
According to a press release from the Supreme Court the case was filed long after the two-year time limit for filing personal injury actions. However, 7 N.N.C. 602(A)(4) permits the court to accept late filings in such actions if the plaintiff can show he was not able to discover sooner the nature and cause of the injury, or the identity of the person who committed the injury. The plaintiff argued he was unable to make the connection or know the nature of the injury for many years. The district court dismissed the case because the statutory conditions were not met, the Navajo member appealed.
The reversal came after the Supreme Court determined:
- The district court impermissibly required argument and witnesses at a status conference and furthermore, applied the wrong standard and procedure in reaching a decision on a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.
- The pretrial conference may not be converted into a motion hearing requiring argument and witnesses.
- Linking injury to an abuse that occurred so many years ago is a factual issue for a jury to consider, not for a judge to weigh in a preliminary motion.
- The courts have a duty in parens patriae, or duty to protect the health and welfare of the people, "to ensure allegations of harm to our children are fully heard and not dismissed on mere technicalities."
- The district court had made no factual findings in holding that it had jurisdiction on the basis of inherent sovereignty as recognized by the Treaty of 1868. Stating such cursory jurisdictional determinations cannot be made and are growingly infringing on the civil authority of tribal nations over non-members in ways that have become “erratic and standardless,” without consulting Congress or tribes.
The case has been remanded for further proceedings. The Court also stated that tribal jurisdiction is constantly under attack and the courts and Nation’s lawyers must make detailed inquiries to protect the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation.