The 554 Million-Dollar Man
Sam Buffone led the way for the Navajo Nation’s historic settlement—oh, and he kept Google out of trouble, too
Published in 2015 Washington DC Super Lawyers magazine
on April 21, 2015
Updated on April 30, 2015
As we were going to press, Samuel J. Buffone, 68, lost his three-year fight with cancer. Andrew L. Sandler, chairman of BuckleySandler, remembers his longtime friend and partner:
“Sam Buffone was one of the great lawyers of his generation. He was truly one of the just few; a man who dedicated his career to being a champion of justice. Over his storied 45-year career, Sam represented torture victims; sought justice for victims killed in a car bombing in Washington, D.C. by agents for Chilean dictator Pinochet; litigated a cutting-edge Internet privacy case for Google executives in Italy; and achieved a landmark settlement for the Navajo Nation. For Sam, litigation advocacy was a craft. Whether the relevant law addressed human rights, Indian law, criminal procedure, sentencing requirements or banking mattered not. Nor did it matter if a case was pending in a state or federal trial or appellate court, the EEC, Italy, Chile or Spain, or even the United States Supreme Court. Sam would pour his soul into crafting and delivering effective written and oral advocacy. He loved the practice of law and mentoring young lawyers. His memory will continue to provide inspiration to those who lawyered with him to seek justice with conviction and integrity.”
After first representing the Navajo Nation in a breach of trust case that began in 1999—he secured an approximate $65 million settlement—Sam Buffone was asked to do it again. This time, the breach of trust involved a slightly bigger adversary: the United States of America.
At issue was the Navajo Nation’s claims that the United States mismanaged and failed to adequately invest its tribal funds and natural resources for more than 50 years.
“One of the things that the case was principally about was the failure of the United States government as a trustee to maintain adequate records or to be able to account for the receipts of funds,” says Buffone, a partner at BuckleySandler. “It was a lot like if you deposited some money in several bank accounts, left on a vacation for a few months and came back, went to the bank and asked, ‘What are my balances?’And they said, ‘Well, we don’t really have the records. Why don’t you come in and show us what you deposited and what checks you wrote and we’ll give you an estimate?’”
Despite the lack of receipts, Buffone says there was a staggering amount of documentary evidence.
“We’re dealing with millions of pages of documents,” he says. He and his colleagues spent months at the reservation’s capital in Window Rock, Arizona to dig through it all.
“The Navajo, although they’re the largest Indian tribe in the United States, are a very poor nation, with high unemployment and gross infrastructure deficits,” he says. “There are large parts of the reservation that don’t have running water and even larger parts that aren’t served by electrical lines, so you can imagine that the state of their tribal record-keeping for documents going back to the 1940s is not optimum. We were doing a lot more archaeology than litigation.”
Buffone was the closer in the case. The Nordhaus Law Firm in New Mexico was of counsel in pursuing the claims. While the case was filed in 2006, it was stayed in 2007 and came out of stay in 2012. That’s when Buffone, firm partner Christopher Regan and firm chairman Andrew L. Sandler joined.
Their strategy was to push aggressively for trial. “It became clear that the amount of potential damages in this case could range from zero to well over a billion dollars,” Buffone says.
The case wound up settling last summer almost exactly between those two numbers: $554 million, the largest breach of trust settlement obtained by a single American Indian tribe against the United States.
“[The resolutions] don’t always work as well as this,” Buffone says, commending Court of Federal Claims Judge Eric Bruggink and opposing counsel for the efficiency of the court-supervised alternative dispute resolution. While the U.S. was aggressive in litigation and put a strong effort into defending the case, it also was fully committed to trying to make the ADR process work, Buffone says.
It also took serious management skills for Buffone, who juggled this case with the rest of his workload. Along with complex civil litigation and enforcement matters, he maintains an international practice, representing foreign and American companies. During the Navajo Nation case, Buffone was frequently flying to Italy, where he represented two Google executives accused of violating the country’s privacy laws. The case—which stemmed from a clip posted on Google Video of students in Turin bullying a child with Down’s syndrome—resulted in dismissed charges against his clients.
The landmark Navajo settlement was a special kind of victory for Buffone. He says the award will help bring important resources to the Navajo Nation, which is now working to establish procedure on how to invest the money. It could go toward infrastructure, as some people on the reservation still haul water back to hogans, the traditional dwelling made of wood and adobe. Or funds may go toward revamping the Navajo educational system.
“It always feels good to get a big recovery,” Buffone says. “But when you know the money’s going to be used for those sorts of things, it makes it feel a whole lot better.”