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Case Law Updates on the Environment (CLUE)

Case Law Update Details

Case Title

Narragansett Indian Tribe v. Rhode Island DOT

Case No.

2017 WL 4101149


U.S. District Court - Rhode Island


Rhode Island




Providence Viaduct Replacement

Project Type


Project Description

The project involved replacing a viaduct for I-95 in downtown Providence, Rhode Island. The project was carried out by the Rhode Island DOT (RIDOT) with funding from FHWA. The Narragansett Indian Tribe, FHWA, RIDOT, and the Rhode Island State Historic Preservation Officer entered into a Section 106 Programmatic Agreement (PA) to address any impacts that the project might have on historically significant land. One stipulation in the PA required RIDOT to acquire certain historic properties and transfer ownership to the State of Rhode Island for and on behalf of the Tribe. RIDOT acquired all of the historic properties but informed the Tribe that it would not transfer one of the properties unless the Tribe waived its sovereign immunity with respect to the deed covenants and consented to acquire the property subject to Rhode Island’s jurisdiction and civil and criminal laws; the Tribe refused.

Case Summary

This case arose from the dispute between the Tribe and RIDOT over RIDOT’s conditions to the land transfer that was required by the Section 106 PA. The Tribe filed this lawsuit against FHWA, ACHP, RIDOT, and the Rhode Island Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission (RIHPHC), asserting breach of contract claims and seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. The court dismissed the claims directed at FHWA and the ACHP because they were barred by federal sovereign immunity. The court also dismissed the claims against the state defendants because the court determined that NHPA does not provide a private right of action against a state agency. As of January 2018, an appeal was pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

Key Holdings

Litigation Procedure

Claims Against Federal Defendants.  The court dismissed the claims directed at FHWA and ACHP. The court held that there was no private right of action under NHPA or the Declaratory Judgment Act because neither statute waived the federal government’s sovereign immunity.  The court also ruled that the Tribe could not bring a claim under the Administrative Procedure Act because the Tribe was not challenging a final action by a federal agency:

“Here, Plaintiff’s claims for declaratory judgment, injunctive relief, and breach of contract are generally premised on RIDOT’s refusal to transfer the Tribal Historic Properties’ title to Plaintiff. Indeed, it appears that the only allegation Plaintiff directs at Federal Defendants is that, ‘FHWA has in its possession or controls funds allocated to fulfill its agreements under the PA.’ Notably, Plaintiff’s Complaint is devoid of any assertion that Federal Defendants’ final agency action caused Plaintiff harm.”

In practical terms, this ruling meant that Plaintiffs did not have a legal right to bring a lawsuit directly challenging FHWA’s or ACHP's compliance with the PA.

Claims Against State Defendants.  The court dismissed the claims directed at RIDOT and RIHPHC. The court held that neither the APA nor NHPA provided a private right of action against a state agency. The court explained that “the APA only provides for review of federal agency action. It does not provide a right of action against a state agency.” The court also ruled that NHPA did not confer a private right of action. The court noted that two circuit courts of appeal had also concluded that Section 106 of NHPA did not confer a private right of action, and the court explained that it agreed with their reasoning.  In short, the court also held that the plaintiffs did not have a legal right to challenge the State’s compliance with the PA.

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