Press Release October 29, 2012

Goodwin Litigators Win Appeal of Ancient Native American Land Claim Case

A Goodwin Procter litigation team recently prevailed on behalf of several New York cities, companies and citizens in a seven-year lawsuit between the Onondaga Nation and the State of New York.

In March 2005 the Onondaga Nation filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York alleging that certain centuries-old treaties with the State of New York violated the federal Indian Trade and Intercourse Act and were void from the beginning. As relief, the Onondaga sought title to a 4,000 square mile parcel in upstate New York that includes the entire city of Syracuse as well as several other cities and private lands, affecting approximately 875,000 people living within the claim area.

Former New York Governor Pataki retained Goodwin Procter to represent all non-state defendants, including various governmental and corporate entities. Goodwin, along with the State of New York, immediately moved to dismiss the Onondagas’ claim for reasons announced by the Supreme Court in its City of Sherrill decision: that allowing it to proceed would “upset the justifiable expectations of individuals and entities far removed from the event giving rise to the plaintiffs’ injury.”

The court granted the motion to dismiss in 2010, and the Onondagas appealed to the Second Circuit, arguing that land claim plaintiffs must be allowed to present facts to overcome the equitable bar to relief in City of Sherrill.  Goodwin’s joint brief with the State of New York argued that since the Onondagas could prove no set of facts to overcome controlling Second Circuit precedent, dismissal was proper on the merits.

On Oct. 19, 2012, the Second Circuit issued affirmed the district court’s dismissal. The win was important not only for the hundreds of thousands of landowners whose title was at risk, but for ancient Native American land claim defendants generally, as this is the first decision holding that equitable defenses are appropriately raised at the motion to dismiss stage, which effectively precludes all future claims of this type.

The Goodwin litigation team for the appeal included Mark Puzella, who argued the appeal, and Gus Coldebella and Anthony Feeherry.