A class-action lawsuit spawned by deplorable conditions in 153 Browning homes thought to be responsible for Blackfeet tribal residents’ ailing health has caught the attention of five other American Indian tribes, which have now waded into the case with their own interests. Attorneys for the tribes say they’re concerned the case could set bad precedent, triggering unintended consequences throughout Indian country.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), Crow Tribe and Fort Peck Tribe in Montana have joined the Navajo Nation in filing documents supporting the Blackfeet Housing Authority’s (BHA) case. In July 2006, a Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals panel reversed a district court decision to dismiss residents’ claims against the BHA and affirmed the dismissal of residents’ claims against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
In the ’70s, HUD funded and regulated construction of the Glacier Homes through the BHA. Lead plaintiffs Martin Marceau and Mary Jane and Gary Grant say their homes, shoddily built with nosebleeds and other illnesses for decades.
BHA has asked the Ninth Circuit to reconsider its decision to let HUD off the hook and to reevaluate whether BHA must answer residents’ claims, though the court hasn’t acted on that request. Attorneys for both the plaintiffs and BHA say they welcome the other tribes’ involvement, given the suit’s importance.
“We think [the Ninth Circuit] clearly made a wrong decision and we’re concerned that other courts will follow their lead,” says Martin Avery, general counsel for Navajo Housing Authority, which serves the largest Indian nation in the United States.
The concern, says CSKT attorney John Harrison, is not the Glacier Homes residents’ claims, but rather the larger implications of who’s held responsible: “Obviously there are some wronged tribal members, but our position is that the remedy isn’t against the tribe but against HUD.”
Meanwhile, the University of Montana will host a panel discussion about the Glacier Homes case, tentatively featuring plaintiffs and their attorneys, at the law school’s Castles Arena at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 22.