A decade-long legal effort by leaders of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe to force the St. Labre Indian School to share its wealth has reached the Montana Supreme Court.
Attorneys for the tribe have filed an appeal asking the state’s high court to reverse rulings by Yellowstone County District Judge Susan Watters, who in 2009 made several rulings that ended the case before it reached trial.
“The Northern Cheyenne Tribe has a right to have its issues of fact decided by a jury,” according to the appeal filed April 16 by the Billings law firm of Edwards, Frickle and Culver. “The District Court swept away powerful evidence against St. Labre.”
The legal struggle between the tribe and the mission school in Ashland began in 2002, when tribal leaders filed the first lawsuit seeking what it claimed was a “more equitable distribution” of donations made to the Catholic school.
That lawsuit was later dismissed at the request of tribal leaders, but a second lawsuit was filed in March 2005 after negotiations between the tribe and school broke down.
The lawsuit alleged that the Catholic Church, which operates the mission school, had used the plight and poverty of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe to create a successful fundraising enterprise that generated millions of dollars in annual donations through a direct-mail marketing campaign.
The lawsuit, which also named the Diocese of Great Falls - Billings and the St. Labre Home for Indian Children and Youth, stated several claims, including violations of constitutional rights, fraud, negligent misrepresentation, cultural genocide and breach of contract.
The case was initially filed in state District Court, was moved to federal court and then back to state court in March 2006.
The tribe then filed an amended complaint that included nine causes of action, and Watters began ruling on legal issues, including motions for summary judgment filed by attorneys for the church and school.
By March of 2009, the case was mostly finished after Watters issued several rulings in favor of the defendants, stating in one ruling that “the tribe has failed to cite even one document evidencing the fact that St. Labre has done something wrong or taken advantage of the tribe in some way.”
The appeal challenges the rulings by Watters.
“The District Court went well away from Montana law, and the record, to grant complete absolution to an entity not entitled to that — an entity that hid behind robes and religion to ride the Northern Cheyenne nation to just plain money — $90 million,” the conclusion of the 42-page appeal document states. “What has been done by the Church and the District Court is unconscionable. In the interest of justice and truth, this case must be reversed and remanded.”
Chris Edwards, a lawyer representing the tribe, said Tuesday that the appeal was delayed for several years as the parties attempted to reach an out-of-court settlement. The appeal was filed when those efforts failed, he said.
According to Supreme Court records, lawyers for the church and mission school have until June 13 to file a response.
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