Director, Center for Supreme Court AdvocacyNational Association of Attorneys General
This Report summarizes opinions issued on June 6 and 8, 2022 (Part I); and cases granted review on June 6, 2022 (Part II).
Opinion: Wilkins v. United States, 21-1164
Wilkins v. United States, 21-1164. The Court will consider “[w]hether the Quiet Title Act’s Statute of Limitations is a jurisdictional requirement or a claim-processing rule.” The Quiet Title Act (QTA) authorizes lawsuits against the United States to resolve property disputes where the government claims an interest in the land. There is a time limit, however, and such a suit “shall be barred unless it is commenced within twelve years of the date upon which it accrued.” 28 U.S.C. §2409a(g). Claims accrue “on the date the plaintiff or his predecessor in interest knew or should have known of the claim of the United States.” Petitioners Larry Wilkins and Jane Stanton have owned land on Robbins Gulch Road in Montana since 2004 and 1990, respectively. The federal government owns an easement on their properties, granted to it by the landowners’ predecessors in 1962. The landowners claim the easement began to “unreasonably burden” their properties after the Forest Service installed a sign along Robbins Gulch Roach in September 2006 that read “public access thru private lands.” Expanded public use of the easement had detrimental effects on the properties such as theft, unauthorized hunting, and erosion of the road. The landowners sued the Forest Service under the QTA in August 2018, alleging the easement does not permit public use of the road. The government moved to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, arguing the claims are time-barred. The landowners responded that the QTA’s limitations period is not jurisdictional and that their claims only accrued when the Forest Service erected the sign. The district court granted the government’s motion and the Ninth Circuit affirmed. 13 F.4th 791.
The Ninth Circuit concluded that the QTA’s statute of limitations is jurisdictional based on “clear and direct holdings” from the Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit that “still control” despite more recent decisions applying “a seemingly different framework for assessing whether a statute of limitations is jurisdictional.” In particular, the court relied on Block v. North Dakota, 461 U.S. 273, 292 (1983), in which the Supreme Court stated that if the QTA lawsuit was time-barred, “the courts below had no jurisdiction to inquire into the merits.” The Ninth Circuit rejected the landowners’ argument that United States v. Kwai Fun Wong, 575 U.S. 402 (2015)—which considered whether the statute of limitations in the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) is subject to equitable tolling—demanded a different result. Wong analyzed the FTCA’s statute-of-limitations language providing that an untimely action “shall be forever barred.” 28 U.S.C. §2401(b). In ruling that the FTCA’s statute of limitations is eligible for equitable tolling, the Court rejected the government’s argument that equitable tolling doesn’t apply because the limitations period is nonjurisdictional. The Ninth Circuit recognized “some tension between Wong’s reasoning and the analysis underlying Ninth Circuit precedent interpreting the jurisdictional nature of the QTA’s statute of limitations,” but concluded the cases were not “clearly irreconcilable.”
The landowners contend that Block is not controlling precedent because it did not analyze whether the QTA’s time-bar is jurisdictional and instead made “one passing reference to jurisdiction” in its conclusion, upon which courts have relied too heavily. The landowners also argue that circuit courts treating the limitations period as jurisdictional have erroneously justified their conclusions on the waiver of sovereign immunity in the QTA. The landowners assert that sovereign immunity is “irrelevant because this Court ‘treat[s] time bars in suits against the Government . . . the same as in litigation between private parties.’” The landowners also assert that the Court has established “’that most time bars are nonjurisdictional’” “absent a clear statement from Congress to the contrary.” In their opinion, the QTA lacks a clear statement of jurisdiction given its “mundane” language, especially as compared to the “forever barred” language analyzed and declared nonjurisdictional in Wong. They further contend that labeling the time limit jurisdictional has “harsh consequences” and led the district court to improperly place the burden on them to show that the complaint was timely, and to grant the motion to dismiss without resolving disputed facts.
The government argues that the Ninth Circuit properly applied the principles of statutory interpretation and correctly concluded that the landowners’ claims were time-barred because they “knew of the public’s use of the roadway when they acquired their lots.” It invokes the Court’s jurisprudence that, “[a]lthough Congress must ‘speak clearly’ to give a deadline jurisdictional significance, it need not ‘incant magic words.’” (Citation omitted.) In its view, Block’s “description of the limitations period as jurisdictional cannot fairly be dismissed as an afterthought” because Block explained how the QTA’s “‘carefully crafted’ scheme” provides the sole means by which adverse claimants can challenge the government’s title to real property, and without which the government would be subject to unending lawsuits. In addition, the government argues that waiver of sovereign immunity is a “central condition” of the QTA that defines the extent of its jurisdiction and “‘reflects a clear congressional judgment that . . . requires barring stale challenges to the United States’ claim to real property, whatever the merits of those challenges.’” (Citation omitted.) As for Wong, the government agrees it neither implicitly nor expressly abrogates Block.