United States v. Dann
470 U.S. 39 (1985)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Dann, 470 U.S. 39 (1985)

United States v. Dann

No. 83-1476

Argued November 5, 1984

Decided February 20, 1985

470 U.S. 39

Syllabus

In 1951, the Shoshone Tribe sought compensation for the loss of aboriginal title to lands in several Western States. The Indian Claims Commission (Commission) entered an interlocutory order holding that aboriginal title had been extinguished and later awarded $26 million in compensation. The Court of Claims affirmed, and the award was certified to the General Accounting Office. Pursuant to 31 U.S.C. § 724a (1976 ed., Supp. V), this certification automatically appropriated the amount of the award, which was then deposited for the Tribe in an interest-bearing trust account in the United States Treasury. The Secretary of the Interior is required by statute, after consulting with the Tribe, to submit to Congress a plan for distribution of the fund, but has not yet done so, owing to the Tribe's refusal to cooperate. Subsequently, the United States brought a trespass action in Federal District Court against respondent Tribe members, alleging that in grazing livestock without a permit on land involved in the prior Commission proceeding respondents were violating certain regulations. Respondents claimed that they have aboriginal title to the land, and that thus the Government was precluded from requiring grazing permits. The District Court held that aboriginal title had been extinguished when the Commission's final award was certified for payment. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that "payment" had not occurred within the meaning of § 22(a) of the Indian Claims Commission Act, which provided that

"payment of any claim [of an Indian tribe], after its determination in accordance with this [Act], shall be a full discharge of the United States of all claims and demands touching any of the matters involved in the controversy."

The court reasoned that until a plan of distribution of the fund in question is adopted, there remain significant blocks in the way of delivery to the payee, and that thus the "ordinary meaning" of payment was not satisfied.

Held: "Payment" occurred under § 22(a) when the funds in question were placed by the United States into an account in the Treasury for the Tribe. Pp. 470 U. S. 44-50.

(a) To hold that payment under § 22(a) does not occur until a final plan of distribution has been approved by Congress would frustrate the Indian Claims Commission Act's purpose to dispose of Indian claims with

Page 470 U. S. 40

finality, and would also conflict with the Act's purpose of transferring from Congress to the Commission the responsibility for determining the merits of Indian claims. Pp. 470 U. S. 46-47.

(b) To construe the word "payment" as the Court of Appeals did gives the word a markedly different meaning than it has under the general common law rule, relied upon in Seminole Nation v. United States,316 U. S. 286, that a debtor's payment to a fiduciary for the creditor's benefit satisfies the debt. Here, the Commission ordered the Government qua judgment debtor to pay $26 million to the Government qua trustee for the Tribe as beneficiary. Once the money was deposited into the trust account, payment was effected. Pp. 470 U. S. 47-60.

706 F.2d 919, reversed and remanded.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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