Omaha Tribe asks Nebraska high court to toss lawsuit

By Timberly Ross
Omaha, Nebraska (AP) December 2010

The Omaha Tribe has asked the Nebraska Supreme Court to declare it can’t be sued for payment for work on its casinos, racetrack and other facilities.

The tribe headquartered in Macy has been sued by StoreVisions Inc., an Omaha-based building contractor, for breach of contract. The lawsuit filed in October 2009 in Thurston County District Court says the tribe has not paid for construction work.

The Omaha Tribe argues it is immune from lawsuits because the federal government has granted American Indian tribes sovereign immunity. The tribe said in court documents that a waiver of sovereign immunity signed in 2008 by the tribal chairman and vice chairman for StoreVisions isn’t valid, and the case should be thrown out.

A Thurston County district judge disagreed, ruling the waiver is valid and that the lawsuit can proceed. The tribe appealed, and the lawsuit has been put on hold until the Nebraska Supreme Court rules. Arguments are scheduled for Jan. 7.

The tribe has hired StoreVisions to complete 11 building projects since April 2008, according to the copies of the agreements filed in district court. Those projects included work on the Omaha Tribe’s casinos, racetrack, convenience store, sports complex and RV park.

Copies of StoreVisions’ work estimates filed in district court indicate the contracts were worth more than $690,000. A complete total, along with the amount, if any, the tribe has paid, wasn’t available. StoreVisions’ attorneys had no immediate comment on the case.

The tribe’s attorney, Ben Thompson, declined to comment on the obligation to StoreVisions, saying the matter would be taken up by the lower court if the state Supreme Court didn’t restore the tribe’s sovereign immunity.

The tribe said in its appeal that the waiver wasn’t enforceable because the seven-member tribal council did not pass a resolution authorizing the waiver or giving the chairman and vice chairman the power to authorize it. The tribe contends its constitution and bylaws require such a resolution.

“There is no question that the Omaha Tribe retains immunity from suit in this case,” the tribe said in its appeal.

StoreVisions has argued that the waiver is valid because it was signed by the chairman and vice chairman at tribal headquarters in the presence of three council members.

For the tribe’s “two highest officials, along with three of the five remaining council members to bear witness to the signing of the waiver and now claim that its execution was invalid certainly does not bode well for the integrity of the (tribe),” company said in court documents.

StoreVisions also said the Omaha Tribe’s constitution and bylaws provide no guidance on the process required for a waiver of sovereign immunity or who has the power the authorize such a waiver.