The Mashantucket Pequot tribe and the nearby Mohegan tribe are recognized as sovereign nations under federal law, and are immune from being sued in state court. That sovereignty extends to tribal members who settle their disputes in the two tribal courts.
Both tribes run large casinos that bring in a combined $3 billion a year, and as a result, they attract a large number of liability claims, such as slip-and-falls by casinon patrons. In recent years, the small number of lawyers who handled the majority of claims against the tribes and tribal members were finding it more challenging to handle the number of referrals brought before them. Already, there have been 30 lawsuits filed in the Mashantucket court in 2013.
For now, the Mohegan Tribal Court will continue to require a special written exam for attorneys who want to represent clients before it. Dropping the test "is not something that is currently being discussed," said Paul Guernsey, who is the chief judge for both the tribal court and Mohegan Gaming Court.
The main differences between the state and tribal laws are few, but significant. For one thing, the statute of limitations for a civil action in both tribal courts is one year, instead of two in the state court system.
There are also liability caps of twice the physical damage for most claims. That leads to more trials, and fewer settlements, since the defense knows it can't be hit with a stunningly high verdict.
There are also laws that protect the tribe and its interests in family court and employment disputes.
"Anyone who is practicing in the area of Indian law, it's important to be aware of the principals of tribal sovereignty and sovereign immunity," said Andrew Houlding, a principal with Rome McGuigan and chair of the Indian Law Section of the Connecticut Bar Association.
For example, Houlding said, the state has no authority to regulate conduct of tribal employers. That means tribal employers have much broader rights to terminate employees. The tribes are also protected against being sued for monetary damages in employment cases. However, tribal officials who act beyond the scope of their authority can be sued for damages individually. Some of the differences are subtle. But there is a lot to know.
John Strafaci, a New London personal injury lawyer, tries cases in both tribal courts.