BANGOR, Maine — The fifth time may be the charm for a Passamaquoddy woman whose lawsuits have been in court for a decade.
At Sanford High School on Wednesday, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court will consider for the fifth time issues in the case of Pamela Francis v. Colleen Dana-Cummings and the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy Housing Authority and five of its former commissioners.
What began as an employment discrimination case in the late 1990s evolved to include a dispute over ownership of a house on the reservation. The numerous appeals also have addressed which kinds of cases come under the jurisdiction of tribal courts and which state courts should handle.
Francis claimed in her eviction lawsuit filed six years ago that on Feb. 24, 1998, Dana-Cummings directed housing authority employees to enter her residence forcibly and evict her. The incident stemmed from a dispute over ownership of a house Francis previously lived in on the reservation. Francis claimed ownership of the house as the designated successor interest of her father, Edward Bassett Sr., now deceased. The housing authority also claimed ownership.
Earlier this year, according to Francis’ attorney, Curtis Webber of Auburn, a tribal judge ruled in Francis’ favor after a four-day trial.
“She was awarded $10,000 in damages for emotional distress and [compensatory] damages for the personal property from the house that was destroyed when tribal members went into her home in February 1998,” he said Monday. “The judge called the behavior of the housing authority ‘egregious.’”
The only things left for the high court to consider Wednesday are whether Francis can seek damages in their personal capacities from Dana-Cummings and the former housing authority commissioners and legal fees in Superior Court.
“Those remedies are not available in tribal court,” Curtis said Monday.
Kaighn Smith Jr., the Portland lawyer who represents Dana-Cummings and the ex-commissioners, declined to comment Monday on the coming arguments.
The legal skirmishing began in 1997 when Francis sued after her dismissal as executive director of the housing authority the previous year. She alleged that her contractual and civil rights were violated when she was fired. The housing authority alleged that Francis breached her contract and was unjustly enriched while she worked there.
The state’s high court ruled in her favor in 1999, a decision now referred to as Francis I. The justices vacated then-Maine Superior Court Justice Margaret Kravchuk’s ruling that the dispute belonged in tribal court and sent it back to Washington County Superior Court.
Francis settled that case in October 2001. She was awarded $50,000 and an additional $75,000 in legal fees. Francis, who now lives in Old Orchard Beach, was never charged with any wrongdoing.
She filed the property dispute lawsuit, Francis II, the next year.
Former Maine Superior Court Justice Andrew Mead ruled that the case should be decided by the tribal court because it was a dispute between two members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe.
In January 2004, the state supreme court sent the case back to Washington County Superior Court because the evidence record was not sufficient for Mead to have determined that the dispute was an internal tribal matter.
Once the record was established, former Maine Superior Court Justice Ellen Gorman ruled in July 2004 that the remanded case belonged in tribal court.
However, in Francis III, a third appeal by the housing authority, the justices found that the supreme court’s decision in Francis I meant that Francis III should be in Superior Court.
In January 2007, in a decision known as Francis IV, the supreme court allowed the Passamaquoddy Tribe to intervene in the case so it could inform Superior Court Justice Allen Hunter, who was overseeing the case, whether he was being asked to regulate an internal tribal matter.
As a result, Hunter sent the matter to tribal court.
Mead and Gorman, who ruled in the cases when they were Superior Court justices, now serve on the state supreme court. They are expected to recuse themselves from arguments in Wednesday’s hearing in a case that already has been dubbed Francis V.