Navajo Supreme Court Rules OHA Abused Discretion in Upholding Ramah Termination

Ramah Navajo Chapter employees now have clear guidance from the Navajo Supreme Court that their employee manual procedures are irrelevant as to their grievance procedure process. The Navajo high court issued an opinion on March 19, 2021 affirming that all non-certified Navajo chapter employees can avail themselves from the tribe’s labor code, the Navajo Preference in Employee Act (NPEA) and file their employment grievances pursuant to the procedures set forth in the Navajo Nation Personnel Policy Manual (NNPPM). In the Matter of Cecelia Whitetail-Eagle vs. Navajo Nation Ramah Navajo Chapter, SC-CV-14-19.

The Appellant in this matter was an aggrieved employee of the non-certified Ramah Navajo Chapter. She was represented by attorney Barry Klopfer. The Appellant argued the Navajo Office of Hearings and Appeals abused their discretion when they dismissed the employee grievance on the theory that the NNPPM only applied to employees that were hired under the same process set forth in the NNPPM, i.e., “big” Navajo’s Executive and Legislative branch employees.

The Supreme Court ruled the protections of a grievance process set forth in the NNPPM applied to non-certified chapter employees, as well. The high court rejected the theory that Ramah’s quasi-sovereignty exempted them from the labor code, i.e, the NPEA. Although Ramah enjoys the autonomy of having, for example, its own police chief, it doesn’t get to legislate its own labor code through hackneyed policy manuals. Ramah, defended by attorney Colin Bradley, unsuccessfully argued a contract existed between the parties that permitted a sham grievance process where the party who initiated the termination is also vested with the authority to override a hearing officer’s decision at the conclusion of a grievance. The Navajo Supreme Court noted the NPEA was amended in 2014 to explicitly allow non-certified chapter employees to use the grievance process set forth in the NNPPM, and that the plain language of these amendments prevail.

The court also ruled the OHA hearing officer abused his discretion in claiming the Appellant filed her Step Grievance one day late. The high court again relied on the plain language of what a “working” days means, and affirmed that a Navajo Nation holiday, Labor Day, does not count as a “working” day on the Navajo Nation. The court remanded to the OHA to conduct an actual evidentiary hearing.