10th Circuit says United States owes accounting to Osage Headright Holders

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals recently breathed new life into the decade old Fletcher v. United States case.

The court ruled Sept. 13 that Osage Nation members William Fletcher and Charles Pratt are entitled to an accounting from the United States’ management of Osage oil and gas royalties.

The court rejected the government’s argument that it’s duty to provide an accounting extended only to the Osage Nation. The court reasoned the trust relationship exists for the benefit of individual Osage headright holders and they are entitled to an accounting of funds.

Fletcher and Pratt are seeking to have the case certified as a class action on behalf of all Osage headright holders. The ruling represents a crucial step in the determination of whether headright payments have been incorrectly paid out of the trust accounts originally established for the benefit of the Osage people, according to a prepared release.

In 2002, Fletcher and Pratt filed suit against the United States claiming that the United States had breached its trust responsibility to the Osage people by failing to account for its management of the Osage mineral estate, allowing headrights to be unlawfully transferred to non-Osages and by restricting participation in Osage elections to headright holders. In 2004, the United States resolved the election claims through Congressional action. However, the United States attempted to have the remaining claims dismissed several times over the last decade on different grounds, the most recent of which was the United States’ claim that only the Osage Nation was entitled to an accounting of royalty payments.

“The creation of headrights under the 1906 Act led to over a hundred years of uncertainty in the payment of royalties to rightful Osage headright owners,” according to the release. “Over the years, numerous headrights were sold and willed to non-Osage persons, sometimes through fraud and murder. This resulted in a questionable and spotty record as to the validity of payments made from the federal government Trust Fund.”

The Osage mineral estate trust, administered by the Secretary of the Interior, is responsible for collecting and distributing royalties created by oil and gas exploration on Osage lands, according to the release.