Colville tribe has lawsuit immunity, high court rules

SPOKANE - Commercial activities of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation are protected from lawsuits under tribal sovereign immunity, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The ruling reverses a court of appeals decision in a racial discrimination lawsuit filed by a non-Indian against two corporations of the Eastern Washington tribe and a supervisor.

The opinion, written by Justice Richard B. Sanders, found that state laws echo federal laws granting the Colvilles' tribal corporations sovereign immunity unless there is an express waiver by the tribe or immunity is abrogated by Congress.

Tribal sovereign immunity protects tribes from suits involving both governmental and commercial activities conducted on or off a reservation. The Colvilles' reservation covers about 1.4 million acres north of the Columbia River in Okanogan and Ferry counties.

The lawsuit was brought by Christopher Wright, a non-Indian hired by the Colville Tribal Services Corp. in July 2002 as a pipe layer and equipment operator.

Wright resigned in February 2003. He sued the Colville Tribal Enterprise Corp., its wholly owned subsidiary CTSC, and his former supervisor, alleging race discrimination, racial harassment, hostile work environment, negligent supervision and negligent infliction of emotional distress.