May 15, 2017
On April 25, 2017, the Supreme Court decided Lewis v. Clarke. Petitioners Brian and Michelle Lewis were driving on a Connecticut interstate when they were struck from behind by a vehicle driven by respondent William Clarke, a Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority employee, who was transporting Mohegan Sun Casino patrons. The Lewises sued Clarke in his individual capacity in state court. Clarke moved to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, arguing that because he was an employee of the Gaming Authority—an arm of the Mohegan Tribe entitled to sovereign immunity—and was acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the accident, he was similarly entitled to sovereign immunity against suit. He also argued, in the alternative, that he should prevail because the Gaming Authority was bound by tribal law to indemnify him. The trial court denied Clarke’s motion, but the Supreme Court of Connecticut reversed, holding that tribal sovereign immunity barred the suit because Clarke was acting within the scope of his employment when the accident occurred. It did not consider whether Clarke should be entitled to sovereign immunity based on the indemnification statute.
By a vote of 8-0, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Connecticut and remanded the case. In an opinion by Justice Sotomayor, the Court held that (1) in a suit brought against a tribal employee in his individual capacity, the employee, not the tribe, is the real party in interest and the tribe's sovereign immunity is not implicated; and (2) an indemnification provision cannot, as a matter of law, extend sovereign immunity to individual employees who would otherwise not be protected. Justice Sotomayor’s majority opinion was joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Alito, and Kagan. Justices Thomas and Ginsburg filed opinions concurring in the judgment. Justice Gorsuch took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
To discuss the case, we have Zachary Price, who is Associate Professor at University of California Hastings College of Law.