Former Employees Fight to Sue Native American Casino

Native American casinos are a USD 20 billion a year industry. But because many of the casinos are on sovereign Indian land, many state and federal laws do not apply to them.

At the Thunder Valley Casino outside Sacramento, Calif., seven female former employees are having difficulty suing the company for alleged harassment and discrimination.

„It’s a very hostile work environment, especially toward women,“ said Cheryl Dalton, former assistant to the director of marketing.

Beverage supervisor Elizabeth Ward added, „I saw so many girls in my office either crying, ashamed, humiliated.“

The case against Thunder Valley Casino, operated by a Las Vegas company, alleges sexual harassment, age and gender discrimination and many other charges. But it’s unclear if a state or federal court even has the jurisdiction to hear the case because the casino is on sovereign Native American land.

„The one thing the tribe will not do is simply subject itself to the jurisdiction of the state,“ said attorney Howard Dickstein, who represents the United Auburn Indian Tribe.

Dickstein said the case could be heard in an independent tribal court, which the plaintiffs reject.

„They have blinders on,“ Dickstein said. „They want a state court to decide their case, and they can’t have a state court decide their case without overruling 200 years of United States Supreme Court precedents.“

Most Employees Not Native American

In 1988, Congress gave Native American tribes the right to operate casinos on their own lands. Dickstein said tribal sovereignty has helped the tribe survive through years of massacres and discrimination.

Today around three-quarters of Indian casino employees are not Native American. „I didn’t know anybody who was part of the tribe who worked there,“ Ward said.

The plaintiffs want state and federal legal protections for non-Native Americans working on tribal grounds.

„We’re not after money,“ said former casino hostess Sundi Lyons. „I’m not after money. We’re after looking to change the law — period.“

The odds seem stacked against them. One judge has already thrown out the case for lack of jurisdiction, though the plaintiffs say they will keep trying.