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Kickapoo Tribe of Indians of Kickapoo Reservation v. Black

United States District Court, Tenth Circuit

December 20, 2013

MICHAEL BLACK, et al., Defendants.


CARLOS MURGUIA, District Judge.

This matter is before the court on two cross motions for summary judgment. One was filed by defendant Nemaha Brown Watershed Joint District No. 7 ("District") (Doc. 247), and the other was filed by plaintiff Kickapoo Tribe of Indians of the Kickapoo Reservation in Kansas ("Tribe") (Doc. 290).[1] For the reasons stated below, the court grants the District's motion and denies the Tribe's motion.

I. Factual Background

As is evidenced by the briefing, this case has a long and complex factual background. However, the facts material to the pending motions are few and uncontroverted. The Kickapoo Indian Reservation ("Reservation") lies almost entirely within the District's boundaries. The Tribe and the District entered into the Watershed Plan and Environmental Impact Statement for the Upper Delaware and Tributaries Watershed ("Agreement") in 1994 to serve as co-sponsors of a project aimed to carry out works of improvement for soil conservation and for other purposes, including flood prevention. The parties agreed to co-sponsor the project after failed attempts by each party to sponsor the project on its own. The parties reached the Agreement following a procedure established by the United States Department of Agriculture's Soil Conservation Service ("SCS"), now known as the National Resource Conservation Service, under what is referred to as P.L. 83-566 (the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act, 16 U.S.C. ยง 1001 et seq.). Many years of planning and negotiation by both parties and numerous other contractors, government officials, and agencies preceded the Agreement. In addition to twenty floodwater retarding dams and other various improvements, the Agreement included plans for a multipurpose dam with recreational facilities, otherwise known as the "Plum Creek Project."

On multiple occasions, the Tribe asked the District to exercise its power of eminent domain to condemn non-Indian-owned land for the Plum Creek Project that the Tribe had been unable to acquire on its own. The District declined the Tribe's request each time. The Tribe filed this water rights action on June 14, 2006, seeking declaratory relief, injunctive relief, compensatory damages, and specific performance. In essence, the Tribe claims that the Agreement is a binding contract that obligates the District to condemn 1, 200 acres of land on the Tribe's behalf to build the Plum Creek Project.

The parties agree that the issue before the court in both summary judgment motions boils down to this: Does the Agreement unambiguously require the District to exercise its eminent domain powers on the Tribe's behalf to acquire non-Indian land necessary to build the Plum Creek Project? The Tribe contends the answer is yes, and the District argues that the answer is no. The provision upon which the parties disagree states:

Nemaha-Brown Watershed Joint District No. 7 and the Kickapoo Tribe of Kansas have the necessary authority to finance and install their portions of the planned project. This includes the right to accept contributions, levy taxes, make assessments against benefitted land, issue bonds, and exercise the right of eminent domain. They have agreed to use these powers as needed and will be financially responsible for excess investigation and design costs resulting from their delay or failure to do so.

(Doc. 248-6 at 68.)

II. Legal Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate if the moving party demonstrates that there is "no genuine issue as to any material fact" and that it is "entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In applying this standard, the court views the evidence and all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670 (10th Cir. 1998) (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)).

III. Analysis

A. Contract Interpretation

The construction of a contract is a question of law for the court.[2] Youell v. Grimes, 217 F.Supp.2d 1167, 1172-73 (D. Kan. 2002) (citing Liggatt v. Emp'rs. Mut. Cas. Co., 46 P.3d 1120, 1129 (Kan. 2002)). The same is true for the determination of whether a contract is ambiguous. Id. at 1173 (citation omitted). "The cardinal rule of contract interpretation is that the court must ascertain the parties' intention and give effect to that intention when legal principles so allow.'" Kay-Cee Enters., Inc. v. Amoco Oil Co., 45 F.Supp.2d 840, 843 (D. Kan. 1999) (quoting Ryco Packaging Corp. v. Chapelle Int'l Ltd., 926 P.2d 669, 674 (Kan.Ct.App. 1996) (citation omitted)).

The court must consider the purpose underlying the contract and the context in which it was written. Prenalta Corp. v. Colo. Interstate Gas Co., 944 F.2d 677, 688 (10th Cir. 1991). Upon determining that a contract is unambiguous, "the court must interpret the contract solely within its four corners, and extrinsic evidence is inadmissible." Youell, 217 F.Supp.2d at 1173. The court must give unambiguous language its plain and ordinary meaning. City of Salina v. Md. Cas. Co., 856 F.Supp. 1467, 1475 (D. Kan. 1994) (citing Wing Mah ...

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