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Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission v. San Juan County

United States District Court, D. Utah

September 7, 2017

SAN JUAN COUNTY; JOHN DAVID NELSON; in his official capacity as San Juan County Clerk; and PHIL LYMAN, BRUCE ADAMS, and REBECCA BENALLY, in their official capacities as San Juan County Commissioners, Defendants.


          Jill N. Parrish, United States District Court Judge.

         Before the court is a Motion to Dismiss Amended Counterclaims filed by Plaintiffs Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, Peggy Phillips, Mark Maryboy, Wilfred Jones, Terry Whitehat, Betty Billie Farley, Willie Skow, and Mabel Skow. (Docket No. 93). As explained below, the court GRANTS the Motion.


         This lawsuit, filed February 25, 2016, challenges the voting procedures in place in San Juan County, Utah. Prior to 2014, San Juan County conducted elections through nine polling places open on Election Day. Each polling place provided some form of language assistance to Navajo-speaking voters. In 2014, the County transitioned to a predominantly mail-in voting system, leaving a single physical polling location operating at the County Clerk's office in Monticello, Utah. Ballots were distributed to voters through available mailing addresses approximately one month prior to Election Day. This system was in place for the entire 2014 election cycle.

         During 2014 and early in 2015, the Navajo Nation and Plaintiff Navajo Human Rights Commission officially opposed the mail-in system, asserting that the closure of polling locations and switch to mailed ballots burdened rural Navajo voters. The County acknowledged the opposition, but indicated that it would continue to utilize the mail-in system for upcoming elections. After some unfruitful back-and-forth between the County and various civil-liberties organizations opposed to the mail-in ballot system, Plaintiffs filed the complaint underlying this Motion. The complaint alleges that the predominantly mail-in voting system violates Section 2, 52 U.S.C. § 10301, and Section 203, id. § 10503, of the Voting Rights Act, as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and demands the reopening of closed polling places along with the provision of Navajo language assistance to in-person voters. (Docket No. 2). The complaint names as defendants San Juan County; John David Nielson, in his official capacity as San Juan County Clerk; and Phil Lyman, Bruce Adams, and Rebecca Benally in their official capacities as San Juan County Commissioners (collectively, “County Defendants”). (See id.).

         County Defendants soon filed their answer, which asserted that the County was making significant changes to its election procedures in anticipation of the June 2016 primary elections. (Docket No. 41 at 3-4). For the June 2016 elections, the County maintained mail-in voting as an option, but also opened three physical polling locations on the Navajo Reservation and provided language assistance to voters through Navajo-speaking translators on Election Day. In addition to their answer, County Defendants filed five counterclaims seeking declaratory relief and alleging that Plaintiffs had violated both federal civil rights statutes and Utah tort law. (Docket Nos. 40). County Defendants amended their counterclaims on May 30, 2016. (Docket No. 74).

         Plaintiffs eventually filed the instant Motion to Dismiss the Amended Counterclaims. (Docket No. 93). Plaintiffs responded, (Docket No. 99), and County Defendants replied, (Docket No. 106). The court heard oral argument on July 26, 2017. (Docket No. 170). The court now considers the arguments of the parties under jurisdiction granted by 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1367.


         Plaintiffs bring this motion to dismiss under both Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1), which addresses motions for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, and Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), which requires dismissal of claims that fail to state a cognizable or plausible right to relief. The standards for a motion to dismiss under each subsection of the rule are briefly outlined below.

         I. FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(1)

         A motion under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) challenges the court's subject matter jurisdiction over the suit. The Tenth Circuit has explained that motions to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1)

generally take one of two forms. First, a moving party may make a facial attack on the complaint's allegations as to the existence of subject matter jurisdiction. In reviewing a facial attack, the district court must accept the allegations in the complaint as true. Second, a party may go beyond allegations contained in the complaint and challenge the facts upon which subject matter jurisdiction is based. . . . In reviewing a factual attack, a court has wide discretion to allow affidavits, other documents, and a limited evidentiary hearing to resolve disputed jurisdictional facts. In the course of a factual attack under Rule 12(b)(1), a court's reference to evidence outside the pleadings does not convert the motion into a Rule 56 motion [for summary judgment].

Stuart v. Colo. Interstate Gas Co., 271 F.3d 1221, 1225 (10th Cir. 2001) (internal citations and quotations omitted).

         II. FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6)

         “To survive a motion to dismiss [under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6)], a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quotations omitted). In order for a claim to be “plausible on its face, ” the court must be able “to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged” from the factual allegations in the complaint. See Id. Although the court must take the factual allegations of the complaint as true, the court is not required to take “mere labels and conclusions, ” or “formulaic recitation[s] of ...

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