FORT DUCHESNE, Uintah County — Larry Kee Yazzie was the Ute Indian Tribe's chief judge for a little more than a year. Now, he is suing his former employer for breach of contract.
Yazzie, an Arizona attorney, claims the tribe's Business Committee improperly fired him because members of the governing body were upset with a sentence he had meted out in a criminal case. He said the victim in the case is related to a committee member who felt the defendant should have received a harsher sentence.
"The chairman said, 'The reason why we're letting you go is because we feel that your sentences are too light,' " Yazzie said. "I knew which case they were talking about … They wanted me to punish (the defendant) and throw the key away."
Yazzie said he gave the man a sentence consistent with the crime he was convicted of. He said a jury of tribal members decided the man hadn't intentionally injured the victim and found him guilty of a less-severe offense.
"He spent almost a full year in jail," Yazzie said. "He paid for his own alcohol and substance-abuse counseling, as well as other counseling. He was a model prisoner."
According to a copy of Yazzie's contract, tribal leaders appointed him as the "permanent chief judge" of the Ute Indian Tribe in December 2007. Still, the parties agreed that the contract could be terminated for just cause with 60 days' written notice by either Yazzie or the tribe.
Yazzie said Ute Tribe Business Committee Chairman Curtis Cesspooch sent him a letter in January informing him that his "one-year contract" would not be renewed. Yazzie had been given two weeks notice. He said he contacted the tribe's executive director to ask about the committee's decision, but couldn't get a clear explanation for why he was being dismissed.
"I did meet with the chairman," Yazzie said. "I never met with the full committee, even though they were discussing my contract, my livelihood, my work. I never had the courtesy to sit down and talk with them. All the decisions were made behind closed doors."
Yazzie said he asked the tribe to give him the 60 days' notice required under the contract before terminating him. He also asked for help from the tribe's attorney, Tom Fredericks, to land another job practicing Indian law.
Fredericks said he had not yet seen Yazzie's civil complaint. He expressed surprise at the former judge's decision to file suit and disputed Yazzie's version of his termination.
"I thought we had an agreement with him," Fredericks said, adding that the tribe had made a recommendation on Yazzie's behalf to a prospective employer and had agreed to pay him a severance package.
"I thought we treated him fairly," the attorney said. "I thought he was treated honorably by the Business Committee, so we need to look at what his complaint says."
The tribe was served with a copy of Yazzie's lawsuit on April 9. The tribe has 40 days to file a response in Ute Tribal Court.
"It's kind of a long shot," Yazzie admitted about his lawsuit, "but I think people have a right to know what's happened with their chief judge."