Agua Caliente Band won't pursue certain taxation claims in lawsuit

A view of the Agua Caliente Reservation in southern California. Photo from Facebook

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians continues to pursue a taxation lawsuit against Riverside County in California amid competing claims from other local agencies.

The tribe filed suit in January 2014, contending that the county's possessory interest tax cannot be imposed on the reservation. No other defendants were named.

However, Judge Dolly M. Gee allowed the
Desert Water Agency to intervene. The agency receives a share of the county's interest tax and imposes taxes, fees and other charges that could be affected by the lawsuit.

But the tribe clarified that the case is only about the county's tax and filed a motion to dismiss the claims raised by the water agency with respect to the other taxes. Gee granted the tribe's request even as the water agency objected.

"This is a complex case with a number of novel legal questions, and it is reasonable for claims and legal theories to develop as the case proceeds," Gee wrote in a June 2 decision that was first reported by The Palm Springs Desert-Sun. "The tribe is under no obligation to pursue claims which it does not wish to pursue so long as the dismissal of the claims will not result in legal prejudice to DWA. The court finds that it will not."

The motion clarified that the tribe is challenging the county's tax on the basis of White Mountain Apache Tribe v. Bracker, a U.S. Supreme Court case from 1980. The decision lays out a balancing test that weighs federal, tribal and state interests in determining whether a local or state government can impose taxes in Indian Country.

The tribe's litigation position means the county's tax will be considered on a fact-specific basis. The water agency's charges will not be affected by a decision in the case although the tribe could certainly pursue another lawsuit in the future.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has issued a regulation that confirms that local and state governments cannot impose taxes in Indian Country. The tribe is not basing the lawsuit on the rule.

Separately, the water agency is disputing the tribe's water rights. The case is headed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Get the Story:
Ruling narrows Agua Caliente tribe's tax lawsuit (The Palm Springs Desert Sun 6/13)

Federal Register Notice:
Residential, Business, and Wind and Solar Resource Leases on Indian Land (December 5, 2012)

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