Respondent Chickasaw Nation owns and operates a motor inn in
Oklahoma at which it conducts bingo games and sells cigarettes.
After the State filed a state court suit against the Tribe and
respondent inn manager to collect unpaid state taxes on these
activities, the Tribe, asserting federal question jurisdiction,
removed the action to the Federal District Court. The State's
motion to remand the case on the ground that the complaint alleged
only state statutory violations and state tax liabilities was
denied by the District Court, which held that the complaint
implicated the federal question of tribal immunity, since it sought
to apply state law to an Indian Tribe. Thereafter, the court
dismissed the suit, finding it barred by tribal sovereign immunity.
The Court of Appeals affirmed, noting that, as a prerequisite to
stating jurisdiction over an Indian tribe, an alleged waiver or
consent to suit is a necessary element of a well-pleaded complaint.
The court adhered to that disposition on remand from this Court,
finding that the rule of Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams,
482 U. S. 386
that to support federal court removability, a complaint on its face
must present a federal question -- did not apply to the State's
complaint. The court found that, although nothing within the
complaint's literal language suggested the implication of a federal
question, such a question was inherent within the complaint because
of the parties subject to the action.
This case was improperly removed from the
Oklahoma courts. The Court of Appeals' decision is plainly
inconsistent with Caterpillar.
The possible existence of a
federal tribal immunity defense to the State's claims did not
convert a suit otherwise arising under state law into one which, in
the statutory sense, arises under federal law. And there was no
independent basis for original federal jurisdiction to support
removal. This jurisdictional question is not affected by the fact
that tribal immunity is governed by federal law, since Congress has
expressly provided by statute for removal when it desired federal
courts to adjudicate defenses based on federal immunities.
846 F.2d 1258, reversed.
Page 489 U. S. 839
The Chickasaw Nation owns and operates the Chickasaw Motor Inn
in Sulphur, Oklahoma. At the inn, the Tribe conducts bingo games
and sells cigarettes. Oklahoma filed a complaint against the
Chickasaw Tribe and Jan Graham, who managed the enterprise for the
Tribe, to collect unpaid state excise taxes on the sale of
cigarettes and taxes on the receipts from the bingo games. The
Chickasaw Nation, asserting federal question jurisdiction under 28
U.S.C. § 1331, removed the action from the State District Court in
Murray County to the United States District Court for the Eastern
District of Oklahoma. The State moved to remand the case, arguing
in part that the complaint alleged on its face only state statutory
violations and state tax liabilities. The District Court, however,
denied the motion. It noted that the complaint sought to apply
Oklahoma law to an Indian Tribe, and so implicated the federal
question of tribal immunity. App. to Pet. for Cert. A25-A26.
Shortly thereafter, the District Court dismissed the State's suit,
finding it barred by tribal sovereign immunity. Id.
A divided panel of the Tenth Circuit affirmed. Oklahoma ex
rel. Oklahoma Tax Comm'n v. Graham,
822 F.2d 951 (1987). The
majority concluded that removal had been proper because the State's
complaint, although facially based on state law, contained the
"implicit federal question" of
Page 489 U. S. 840
tribal immunity. It noted that, as a prerequisite to stating
jurisdiction over a recognized Indian tribe, it had held in other
cases that "an alleged waiver or consent to suit is a necessary
element of the well-pleaded complaint." Id.
at 954. Judge
Tacha dissented on the ground that a case could not be removed on
the basis of a federal defense, and that "[i]t is not disputed that
the face of the state's complaint in this case raises only state
tax questions." Id.
We vacated the Tenth Circuit's decision and remanded for
reconsideration in light of our discussion of removal jurisdiction
and the well-pleaded complaint rule in Caterpillar Inc. v.
Williams, 482 U. S. 386
(1987). Oklahoma Tax Comm'n v. Graham,
484 U.S. 973
(1987). On reconsideration, the panel of the Tenth Circuit adhered
to its previous disposition that removal was proper. Oklahoma
ex rel. Oklahoma Tax Comm'n v. Graham,
846 F.2d 1258 (1988).
The court read Caterpillar
as holding that, to support
federal question removability, a complaint must on its face present
a federal claim. But that rule did not apply to Oklahoma's
complaint, thought the panel, because, although "nothing within the
literal language of the pleading even suggests implication of a
federal question," "such a question is inherent within the
complaint because of the parties subject to the action." 846 F.2d
at 1260. Again, Judge Tacha dissented. We granted certiorari, 488
U.S. 816 (1988).
We think the decision of the Court of Appeals is plainly
inconsistent with Caterpillar,
and reverse it. "Except as
otherwise expressly provided by Act of Congress," a case is not
properly removed to federal court unless it might have been brought
there originally. 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). In the present case, the
sole alleged basis of original federal jurisdiction is 28 U.S.C. §
1331, giving district courts "original jurisdiction of all civil
actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the
United States." The presence or absence of federal question
jurisdiction is governed by the "well-pleaded complaint" rule.
"[W]hether a case is one arising
Page 489 U. S. 841
under [federal law], in the sense of the jurisdictional statute,
. . . must be determined from what necessarily appears in the
plaintiff's statement of his own claim in the bill or declaration,
unaided by anything alleged in anticipation of avoidance of
defenses which it is thought the defendant may interpose."
Taylor v. Anderson, 234 U. S. 74
234 U. S. 75
(1914); Louisville & Nashville R. Co. v. Mottley,
211 U. S. 149
we ruled that the application of the
well-pleaded complaint rule defeated federal question jurisdiction,
and therefore removability, in a case in which employees sued on
personal, state law employment contracts. We refused to
characterize these state law claims as arising under federal law,
even though an interpretation of the collective bargaining
agreement might ultimately provide the employer a complete defense
to the individual claims, and even though employee claims on the
collective bargaining agreement would have been the subject of
original federal jurisdiction. Caterpillar, supra,
482 U. S.
-398. The state law tax claims in the present case
must be analyzed in the same manner. Tribal immunity may provide a
federal defense to Oklahoma's claims. See Puyallup Tribe, Inc.
v. Washington Game Dept., 433 U. S. 165
(1977). But it has long been settled that the existence of a
federal immunity to the claims asserted does not convert a suit
otherwise arising under state law into one which, in the statutory
sense, arises under federal law. Gully v. First National
Bank, 299 U. S. 109
(1936). The possible existence of a tribal immunity defense, then,
did not convert Oklahoma tax claims into federal questions, and
there was no independent basis for original federal jurisdiction to
The jurisdictional question in this case is not affected by the
fact that tribal immunity is governed by federal law. As the
dissent below observed, Congress has expressly provided by statute
for removal when it desired federal courts to adjudicate defenses
based on federal immunities. See
Page 489 U. S. 842
Willingham v. Morgan, 395 U. S. 402
395 U. S.
-407 (1969) (removal provision of 28 U.S.C. §
1442(a)(1) for federal officers acting "under color" of federal
office sufficient to allow removal of actions in which official
immunity could be asserted); Verlinden B. V. v. Central Bank of
Nigeria, 461 U. S. 480
461 U. S. 493
n. 20 (1983) (original federal jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §
1330(a) over claims against a foreign sovereign which allege an
exception to immunity). Neither the parties nor the courts below
have suggested that Congress has statutorily provided for federal
court adjudication of tribal immunity notwithstanding the
well-pleaded complaint rule.
As this case was improperly removed from the Oklahoma courts,
the merits of the claims of tribal immunity were not properly
before the federal courts, and we express no opinion on that
The judgment of the Court of Appeals is