Court Challenges Tribal College's Immunity Claim

July 11, 2017

Salish Kootenai College must prove to a federal court that it operates as an arm of the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes and therefore deserves immunity from charges that it falsified student information, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.

A lower court had dismissed a lawsuit filed under the federal False Claims Act by former employees at Salish Kootenai, alleging that the Montana tribal college "knowingly provided false progress reports on students to keep grant monies coming from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Indian Health Service." The lower court ruled that the college was protected by tribal immunity, but in its ruling Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said the lower court had erred in that conclusion.

The False Claims Act permits lawsuits against "any person" who defrauds the government by providing false information, and the appeals panel said the appropriate question is whether the tribe or the college meet the definition of a "person" that can be sued under the False Claims Act. The Ninth Circuit panel concluded that the tribe itself does not meet the test, but ordered the lower court to decide if the college is an arm of the state and hence similarly cannot be sued.

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