The US Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled [opinion, PDF] that tribal sovereign immunity does not extend to tribal employees acting in an individual capacity. Lewis v. Clarke [SCOTUSblog materials] arose when Brian and Michelle Lewis were injured in a car crash caused by William Clarke, an employee of the Mohegan Tribe [official website] who was driving a Mohegan Sun Casino limousine. Clarke argued that he was entitled to sovereign immunity and the lawsuit should be dismissed. The Supreme Court of Connecticut agreed that Clarke was entitled to sovereign immunity and dismissed the case. Justice Sotomayor, writing for an 8-0 majority, disagreed with the Connecticut ruling, holding that when a suit is filed against an individual, sovereign immunity does not apply. Clarke was treated as an individual in the lawsuit because the Lewises only wanted money from Clarke and wanted to hold Clarke responsible for his “individual wrongdoing.” The Lewises did not ask for damages from the Mohegan Tribe in the suit.
Justices Thomas wrote a concurring opinion agreeing that Clarke was not entitled to sovereign immunity because the accident occurred outside of the Mohegan tribe’s territorial boundaries. Justice Ginsburg also concurred, saying that “tribes, interacting with nontribal members outside reservation boundaries, should be subject to non-discriminatory state laws of general application.” In other words, tribes should be treated like anyone else under the law when suits arise outside of tribal territory.