The South Dakota Supreme Court issued an opinion Wednesday affirming a Charles Mix County circuit court’s decision to dismiss a case filed by a former principal against the Marty Indian School.
The opinion, written by Chief Justice David Gilbertson, stated that the circuit court correctly dismissed Timothy Stathis’ case solely because the court didn’t have subject matter jurisdiction to hear the case.
Gilbertson opined that same basis prevented the Supreme Court from deciding other issues raised by Stathis, such as tribal sovereign immunity and the immunity of tribal officials and employees.
Stathis signed a contract with MIS to continue serving as its high school principal on May 8, 2017. That contract stated his term of employment was to run from Aug. 1, 2017, through June 30, 2018.
Part of Stathis’ contract stated that the school, which is located on the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation and chartered by the federally recognized Yankton Sioux Tribe, is not bound by the laws of the state, but that the school board’s manual of bylaws, policies and procedures is controlled by South Dakota law.
One of Stathis’ responsibilities as principal was to distribute grant money from the Bureau of Indian Education, including monetary bonuses to faculty members. Stathis, according to the opinion, created a set of criteria regarding the way bonuses were awarded, causing disputes within the school and throughout the community.
Gilbertson wrote that on Nov. 15, 2017, “opposition to Stathis’s handling of monetary bonuses reached a boiling point” when MIS faculty member Elk Soldier, aka Gary Drapeau Sr., organized a sit-in at the school library in protest.
School Board President Sarah W. Zephier eventually took control of the incident, beginning “an impromptu open and public meeting about Stathis between students, the entire Marty Indian School Board, members of the public, and Appellees John and/or Jane Does One (1) through Five (5).”
After about two hours, the school board held an emergency executive session in private, calling Stathis in to answer questions.
Stathis was suspended without pay for 10 days. He filed a written grievance with the school board and was reinstated with previously withheld wages on Nov. 30, 2017.
On Dec. 1, 2017, Elk Soldier reported to Yankton Sioux Tribal Police that Stathis had fought with an MIS staff member in the school office that morning. Stathis told police no such fight had happened.
That same day, Elk Soldier and Galena Drapeau, another MIS staff member, submitted letters of resignation. Zephier called a school board meeting, at the end of which Stathis was told he was fired.
Stathis reportedly said he was told he would be paid in full the remaining salary under his contract. On Dec. 12, 2017, he went to MIS and was given a check claimed to be equivalent to that amount. Shortly after that, Stathis was ordered to surrender the check back to the school, and a tribal police officer escorted him from the campus.
On Dec. 20, 2017, after Stathis made multiple demands for payment, the school board met and decided to pay Stathis a $1,500 settlement and the salary for the two weeks he had been suspended. Stathis declined the $1,500 check and filed two written grievances with the school board.
Stathis sued MIS, Elk Soldier, Drapeau, Zephier and the five Jane and John Does who had spoken at the sit-in, as well as MIS employee Glenn Drapeau and school board members Sarah R. Zephier, Stephanie Cournoyer and Julie Blackmoon-Wright, for breaches of contract and settlement agreement, wrongful termination, libel and slander. He asked for punitive damages from his contract’s termination. All defendants in the case were members of the Yankton Sioux Tribe.
The defendants moved to dismiss Stathis’ complaint and said the circuit court didn’t have jurisdiction to hear the case based on tribal sovereign immunity, immunity of tribal officials and employees, federal preemption and infringement of tribal sovereignty.
Judge Bruce Anderson dismissed the case after a July 9, 2018, hearing, and Stathis appealed the decision.
The Supreme Court opinion referenced two issues that come up in cases where a non-tribal member, such as Stathis, sues a tribal entity: infringement and preemption.
Infringement is the concept of overstepping limits of the sovereignty that tribes have from state and federal governments, and in this case refers to whether the state’s action infringed on a tribe’s rights to make and enforce its own laws.
Preemption is related to whether a state exercising legal authority in a particular case violates federal law. This was the basis the circuit court used to dismiss the case.
The opinion cited a previous case in which the St. Francis Indian School did not renew a contract with its non-tribal member principal, who appealed the decision. In that case, the Supreme Court also affirmed the circuit court’s decision to dismiss based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction, stating in its decision that “assertions of state subject matter jurisdiction over contracts between reservation Indians and outsiders have generally been found either to infringe tribal sovereignty or to be preempted by federal law.”
Gilbertson also named two federal statutes specifically related to tribal schools - the Tribally Controlled Schools Act and the Self-Determination Act - which assert that tribal communities should have control over their schools in order to promote student success.
Justices Steven Jensen and Mark Salter concurred with the opinion, as did circuit court Judge James Power, sitting for Justice Janine Kern, who was disqualified.