Wyoming Tribes Say They’re Exempt From Paying Legal Fees

Wyoming’s Native American tribes already owe a gas and oil company $13.1 million, and the company's attorneys are trying to collect $81,000 in fees, but the tribes say because they’re sovereign, they don’t have to pay the legal tab.

Clair McFarland

November 05, 20233 min read

Wind river reservation sign 3 16 22 scaled
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

An oil and gas company that Wyoming’s Native American tribes already owe $13.1 million to is asking for another $81,000 in attorneys’ fees, which the tribes say they don’t have to pay because they’re sovereign.  

Merit Energy Operations has asked the U.S. District Court for Wyoming to make the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes pay $80,882.50 in attorneys’ fees after Merit won a case where the court ordered the tribes to pay the energy company $13.1 million for equipment and infrastructure.  

When the tribes had Merit quit leasing an oil and gas field on the Wind River Indian Reservation three years ago, $13.1 million was the much-disputed value of the equipment and infrastructure Merit left behind on the field.  

The tribes have not yet paid the $13.1 million, prompting Merit to ask the court Oct. 27 to enforce its September order asking them to do so.  

But the tribes, meanwhile, have appealed the order to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.  

‘Should Be No Dispute’ 

In an Oct. 20 request, Merit asked the court to impose attorneys’ fees on both tribes. The company argued that the $81,000 is reasonable and allowed under the terms of entities’ business lease.  

“There should be no dispute about this, given that the Tribes themselves previously advocated for this same interpretation,” reads Merit’s filing, referencing a provision in the lease ordering the losing party in any legal action to pay the attorneys’ fees.  

As for the reasonableness of the price tag, Merit said its rates are less than those currently charged by the Northern Arapaho Tribe’s legal counsel.  

Sovereign, Though 

The tribes fired back Friday, arguing that they are sovereign governmental entities and therefore not required to pay legal fees in a lawsuit except in cases where they have unequivocally waived their sovereign immunity.  

Sovereign immunity is a legal concept preventing government entities from being sued in many cases. The tribes have sovereign immunity unless they waive it, or unless Congress acts to waive it, their filing says, drawing from prior case law.  

Tribes Call It Pricey 

The tribes also argue that $81,000 is too much. They refer to a more complex case between the three parties in the same court in 2021. 

In that case, the tribes won and asked for $124,433 in attorneys’ fees, but the court reduced the fee to $38,240.  

“The current action, in comparison, is far more straightforward,” says the filing. 

What About That Court 

Lastly, the tribes are asking Wyoming’s federal court not to assess attorneys’ fees at this point, but to wait until the appeal in the 10th Circuit plays out.  

The appeal is ongoing.  

Clair McFarland can be reached at clair@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Clair McFarland

Crime and Courts Reporter