Duluth Indian Casino Dispute Must Be Decided in Federal Court

Minnesota case law summary by Attorney Richard Clem: Indian law, sovereign immunity.

City of Duluth v. Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. MN Indian law, state jurisdiction

In 1986, the City of Duluth entered into a series of contracts to establish a joint venture for operating gaming activities in downtown Duluth. The City was to receive a share of casino profits. Under one of the agreements, the Band made a partial waiver of sovereign immunity under which it consented to be sued in "any Minnesota state court or in federal court." After a change in federal law, new agreements were signed in 1994. In the 1994 agreement, the Band consented "to be sued by the City in the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota" for claims arising under the agreement. The parties also agreed in 1994 that the state courts and tribal courts would not have jurisdiction.

In 2011, a dispute arose, and the City sued in St. Louis County District Court. That court held that it did not have jurisdiction because of the 1994 agreement. The city then appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which reversed. The Court of Appeals reasoned that the particular dispute was not covered by the 1994 contract, and that the earlier waiver of sovereign immunity was applicable to the case. The Band then appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The Minnesota Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Page, agreed with the trial court and reversed the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court held that this was a case of contract construction. Since the interpretation of the 1994 agreement was required to determine whether the 1986 agreement was breached, then the federal courts had sole jurisdiction.

No. A12-1324 (Minn. Mar. 12, 2014).

Please see the original opinion for the court's exact language.


Richard P. Clem is an attorney and continuing legal education (CLE) provider in Minnesota. He has been in private practice in the Twin Cities for 25 years. He has a J.D., cum laude, from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul and a B.A. in History from the University of Minnesota. His reported cases include: Asociacion Nacional de Pescadores a Pequena Escala o Artesanales de Colombia v. Dow Quimica de Colombia, 988 F.2d 559, rehearing denied, 5 F.3d 530 (5th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1041 (1994); LaMott v. Apple Valley Health Care Center, 465 N.W.2d 585 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991); Abo el Ela v. State, 468 N.W.2d 580 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991).

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