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Bar K Ranch, LLC v. United States

United States District Court, D. Montana, Butte Division

October 21, 2019



          Brian Morris United States District Court Judge

         Plaintiffs Bar K Ranch, LLC, Michael Walsh, Fred Walsh, and Eileen White (collectively “Plaintiffs”) filed a complaint for declaratory, injunctive, and equitable relief, seeking clarification on the public and private rights-of-way over roads in Madison County. Defendant Madison County Commission filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' claim for injunctive relief (Count IV), arguing that the Plaintiffs present a nonjusticiable political question or, alternatively, that Count IV does not state a claim for which relief can be granted. (Doc. 8). The United States Bureau of Land Management, United States Forest Service, and the United States of America (collectively “Federal Defendants”), filed a motion to dismiss on June 17, 2019. (Doc. 13). Plaintiffs filed an Amended Complaint on July 3, 2019. (Doc. 23). Federal Defendants filed a second motion to dismiss on July 17, 2019. (Doc. 27). Madison County Commission did not re-file their motion to dismiss.

         The Court held on a hearing on the pending motions to dismiss the Amended Complaint on September 10, 2019. Madison County Commission's motion to dismiss and the Federal Defendants' first motion to dismiss preceded the filing of the Amended Complaint and are denied as moot. The Court also denies the Federal Defendants' second motion to dismiss.


         Federal Defendants attack the sufficiency of Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint on two grounds. Federal Defendants first argue that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). Federal Defendants next contend that the complaint fails to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6). The parties disagree about whether several of the issues raised by Federal Defendants prove jurisdictional in nature thereby requiring resolution under Rule 12(b)(1), or whether the issue represents non-jurisdictional defects, and, thus, properly should be resolved under Rule 12(b)(6). The Court agrees with Plaintiffs that Defendants' challenges constitute affirmative, non-jurisdictional defenses, properly analyzed under Rule 12(b)(6).

         A court must dismiss a complaint if it fails to “state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). The Court must consider as true all allegations of material fact and construe those allegations in a light most favorable to the plaintiff. Cahill v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co, 80 F.3d 336, 337-338 (9th Cir. 1996). A court may dismiss a complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) for a lack of subject matter jurisdiction. A federal court's subject matter jurisdiction arises from the “statutory or constitutional power to adjudicate the case.” Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Environment, 523 U.S. 83, 89 (1998). A case must be dismissed, at any stage in litigation, if the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the matter. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(3).

         Generally, “[s]uits against the government are barred for lack of subject matter jurisdiction unless the government expressly and unequivocally waives its sovereign immunity.” Mills v. United States, 742 F.3d 400, 404 (9th Cir. 2014) (citation omitted). The Quiet Title Act (QTA) functions as a waiver of sovereign immunity and provides the “[e]xclusive means by which adverse claimants could challenge the United States' title to real property.” Block v. North Dakota ex rel. Board of U. & Sch. Lands, 461 U.S. 273, 286 (1983).

         Defendants urge the Court to dismiss the Amended Complaint for lack of jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) for two reasons: first, because the claim proves time-barred; and second, because Plaintiffs lack standing to bring a claim on behalf of the public. Defendants also urge the Court to dismiss the Amended Complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) because Plaintiffs have failed to state a claim under the QTA and are prohibited from obtaining prescriptive easements against the United States. The Court addresses each argument in turn.

         A. Statute of Limitations

         The QTA provides a twelve-year statute of limitations from the date of accrual. 28 U.S.C. § 2409a(g). An action “accrue[s] on the date the plaintiff or his predecessor in interest knew or should have known of the claim of the United States.” Id.

         The Supreme Court in Block reversed the lower courts and determined that the QTA's statute of limitations applied to states. Block, 461 U.S. at 292-93. The Supreme Court declared in its conclusion that “the federal defendants are correct: If North Dakota's suit is barred by § 2409a(f), the courts below had no jurisdiction to inquire into the merits.” Id.; see also United States v. Mottaz, 476 U.S. 834, 841 (1986) (“When the United States consents to be sued, the terms of its waiver of sovereign immunity define the extent of the court's jurisdiction.”). The Supreme Court remanded the case for a determination of when the action accrued. Block, 461 U.S. at 293. The Ninth Circuit, citing the conclusory statement in Block, similarly determined that the statute of limitations in the QTA represented a jurisdictional prerequisite to bring an action: “[i]f the statute of limitations has run on a waiver of sovereign immunity, federal courts lack jurisdiction.” Skranak v. Castenada, 425 F.3d 1213, 1216 (9th Cir. 2005).

         More recent Supreme Court decisions cast doubt on this seemingly clear characterization of time-bars as jurisdictional in nature. See United States v. Kwai Fun Wong, 135 S.Ct. 1625, 1632 (2015); Arbaugh v. Y&H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 510 (2006); Sebelius v. Auburn Regional Med. Ctr., 568 U.S. 145, 153 (2013). The Supreme Court in Wong explained that “we have repeatedly held that procedural rules, including time bars, cabin a court's power only if Congress has clearly stated as much.” 135 S.Ct. at 1632 (internal alterations and quotations omitted). The “clear statement” rule derived from Wong appears to conflict with the canon of statutory construction that directs courts to construe narrowly waivers of sovereign immunity. The Supreme Court in Wong, however, declined to treat a waiver of sovereign immunity any differently: “it makes no difference that a time bar conditions a waiver of sovereign immunity.” Id. at 1638. The Supreme Court in Wong clarified that “traditional tools of statutory construction must plainly show that Congress imbued a procedural bar with jurisdictional consequences.” Id. at 1632.

         Through this pronouncement in Wong, the Supreme Court has “made plain that most time bars are nonjurisdictional.” Id. Statutes of limitations remain “important.” Id. The Supreme Court recognized, however, that “framed in mandatory terms, ” and even “emphatically expressed, ” statutes of limitations still “do not deprive a court of authority to hear a case.” Id. The Supreme Court characterized statutes of limitation more properly as claim processing rules that do not restrict a court's inherent power to hear a case. Id. (quoting Henderson v. Shinseki, 562 U.S. 428, 435 (2011)).

         Courts have wrestled with the impact of Wong. The Eleventh Circuit concluded that the statute of limitations in the QTA prove jurisdictional, even in light of Wong. F.E.B. Corp. v. United States,818 F.3d 681, 685 n.3 (11th Cir. 2016). Other courts have reached the opposite conclusion. Payne v. United States Bureau of Reclamation, 2017 WL 6819927, at *2 (C.D. Calif. Aug. 15, 2017). The Sixth Circuit in Herr v. United States Forest Service,803 F.3d 809 (6th Cir. 2015), recognized, in light of Wong, that the statute of limitations in 28 U.S.C. ยง 2401(a) imposed no jurisdictional barrier to ...

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