Opinion:Nicholson v. Stitt, 2022 OK 35
Subject matter:Municipal Law; Indian Law
Date Decided:April 19, 2022
Trial Court:District Court of Okmulgee County, Judge Ramirez
Route to this Court:Order Dismissing Case; Retained 
Facts:Plaintiffs allege that they are members of the Cherokee nation. Plaintiffs claim McGirt v. Oklahoma, 140 S. Ct. 2452 (2020) established that the State of Oklahoma and Municipalities had no jurisdiction to prosecute them for crimes committed on the Creek Reservation. Plaintiffs claim that because they were prosecuted without proper jurisdiction, their convictions are void ab initio and that the fines and fees paid by the plaintiffs to the State and Municipalities should be returned to the plaintiffs. 

In the trial court, the State and Municipalities filed motions to dismiss arguing Plaintiffs needed to seek post-conviction relief under Oklahoma’s Uniform Post-Conviction Procedure Act, 22 O.S.2011 & Supp.2014 §§ 1080-1089. They also argued that Plaintiffs were attempting to attack a criminal conviction with a civil suit. The State and Municipalities also argued the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction, Plaintiffs failed to state a claim for money had and received, and § 14 of the Curtis Act precluded Plaintiffs’ claims. The State and Municipalities also asserted equitable defenses and argued that venue was improper. The trial court granted the motions to dismiss on the basis of lack of venue, lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and § 14 of the Curtis Act. The trial court denied Plaintiffs’ request for leave to amend their petition finding any amendment would be futile and dismissed the case with prejudice. Plaintiffs appealed, and the Court retained the appeal.
Standard of Review:District court’s dismissal of an action is reviewed de novo. See Kirby v. Jean’s Plumbing Heat & Air, 2009 OK 65, ¶ 5, 222 P.3d 21, 23. Whether the trial court erred in denying plaintiffs’ petition to amend is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. See Prough v. Edinger, Inc., 1993 OK 130, ¶ 8, 862 P.2d 71, 75. However, that discretion is limited by 12 O.S. Supp. 2018 § 2015(A), which provides that leave to amend be freely given when justice so requires.
Analysis:Plaintiffs claim they are not seeking to have their convictions and sentences vacated; rather, they are seeking a refund of monies paid pursuant to judgments that are void ab initio. However, parties cannot use civil suits to attack criminal convictions. Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994). The Court adopted the U.S. Supreme Court’s reasoning from Heck. “A claim for damages bearing that relationship to a conviction or sentence that has not been so invalidated is not cognizable.” Id. at 486-87. For the plaintiffs to establish a claim for damages, they must first prove their conviction is void or invalid. 

In Oklahoma, final judgment can only be vacated through the Post-Conviction Procedure Act. See 22 O.S.2011 § 1080. It states: “[a]ny person who has been convicted of, or sentenced for, a crime and who claims…that the court was without jurisdiction to impose sentence” has the right to challenge the judgment and sentence. Id. § 1080(b). If they wanted to void their conviction, the Plaintiffs must use the Post-Conviction Procedure Act. The Plaintiffs failed to do so, thus their conviction cannot be declared void ab initio. As a  result, they have no claim for damages. 
Plaintiffs’ claims for money had and received fail by the same reasoning. Because McGirt does not apply retroactively to void a conviction that was already final, the trial court’s order denying Plaintiffs’ request to amend their petition was affirmed. Plaintiffs filed their request to amend four days after McGirt was decided, and their convictions were final prior to McGirt without being vacated. Thus, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the request. 
Vote:8-1. Kane, V.C.J. (author).Kauger, J. concurred in result. 
Other: Retained on the Court’s own motion.