Saving America's Mustangs, a Nevada corporation v. Bureau of Land Management of the U.S. Department of the Interior

Filing 20

ORDERED that the Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 5 ) is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. The Quiet Title Act claim may proceed, but the separate claim under the Declaratory Judgment Act is dismissed. Signed by Judge Robert C. Jones on 4/13/2017. (Copies have been distributed pursuant to the NEF - DRM)

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1 2 3 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 4 DISTRICT OF NEVADA 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 ______________________________________ ) ) SAVING AMERICA’S MUSTANGS, ) ) Plaintiff, ) ) vs. ) ) BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT, ) ) Defendant. ) ) 3:16-cv-00733-RCJ-VPC ORDER 12 This action arises out of a dispute over whether the United States reserved title to a 13 14 segment of road or only an easement for its use when it deeded certain land to Plaintiff’s 15 predecessor-in-interest. Pending before the Court is a motion to dismiss for lack of subject 16 matter jurisdiction. 17 I. 18 FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY Plaintiff Saving America’s Mustangs (“SAM”) owns and operates a wild horse sanctuary 19 near Elko, Nevada. (Compl. ¶ 2, ECF No. 1). On or about June 2, 1967, the United States had 20 issued a land patent (“the Patent”) to Plaintiff’s predecessors-in-interest. (Id. ¶ 4). The Patent 21 included a reservation (“the Reservation”) for use and maintenance of a five-mile road (“the 22 Road”) that traverses Plaintiff’s property in a north-south direction. (See id. ¶¶ 4–5). The 23 Reservation was for use by the United States and its agents and employees, not for use by the 24 1 of 7 1 public. (Id. ¶¶ 7–10). Members of the public have since 2013 been using roads on SAM’s 2 property and otherwise trespassing. (Id. ¶ 12). SAM therefore installed access gates on the Road 3 and gave the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) keys to the gates. (Id. ¶¶ 13–14). BLM, 4 however, has asserted that the public has the right to use the Road and that SAM’s installation of 5 gates on the Road violates the Reservation. (Id. ¶ 14). SAM has sued BLM in this Court under the Declaratory Judgment Act and to quiet title 6 7 to the Road. BLM has moved to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. 8 II. 9 LEGAL STANDARDS Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, possessing only those powers granted by 10 the Constitution and statute. See United States v. Marks, 530 F.3d 799, 810 (9th Cir. 2008) 11 (citing Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994)). The party 12 asserting federal jurisdiction bears the burden of overcoming the presumption against it. 13 Kokkonen, 511 U.S. at 377. A party may move to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction 14 under the federal rules. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1). Additionally, a court may raise the question of 15 subject matter jurisdiction sua sponte at any time during an action. United States v. Moreno– 16 Morillo, 334 F.3d 819, 830 (9th Cir. 2003). Regardless of who raises the issue, “when a federal 17 court concludes that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, the court must dismiss the complaint in 18 its entirety.” Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 514 (2006) (citing 16 J. Moore et al., 19 Moore’s Federal Practice § 106.66[1], pp. 106–88 to 106–89 (3d ed. 2005)). 20 “Absent a waiver, sovereign immunity shields the Federal Government and its agencies 21 from suit.” FDIC v. Meyer, 510 U.S. 471, 475 (1994). “Sovereign immunity is jurisdictional in 22 nature.” Id. Waivers of sovereign immunity are construed narrowly. See Lane v. Pena, 518 U.S. 23 187, 192 (1996); Lehman v. Nakshian, 453 U.S. 156, 160–61 (1981). 24 2 of 7 1 2 III. ANALYSIS The case turns upon whether the United States excepted the Road from the grant of fee 3 simple title altogether or only reserved an easement limited to its own use (and not for use by the 4 general public). The Patent conveys certain land, “EXCEPTING AND RESERVING TO THE 5 UNITED STATES” three rights. (See Patent 1–2, ECF No. 1-1). That language indicates that 6 the rights listed thereafter are variously “except[ions]” to the conveyance itself or 7 “reserv[ations]” of rights in the land conveyed. The first right listed is “[a] right-of-way thereon 8 for ditches and canals . . . .” (Id. 1). The second right listed is “[a]ll the mineral deposits in the 9 lands . . . .” (Id. 2). The third right listed is “[t]hat road and all appurtenances thereto . . . and the 10 right of the United States, its agents or employees, to maintain, operate, repair, or improve the 11 same so long as needed or used for or by the United States.” (Id.). That might be read as an 12 exception to the conveyance as to the Road itself or as reservation of an easement over the Road. 13 At least one other court has approved the Interior Board of Land Appeals’ construction of a 14 patent that used the same “excepting and reserving” language where a listed right was, as here, 15 not qualified with “subject to” or similar language typical to reservations of easements. See 16 Bolack Minerals Co. v. Norton, 370 F. Supp. 2d 161, 174–75 (D.D.C. 2005) (citing 43 U.S.C. 17 § 1768; 43 C.F.R. § 2803.5(b)). The Court is not currently tasked with interpreting the Patent 18 but with determining the Court’s jurisdiction in light of the United States’ limited waiver of 19 sovereign immunity under the Quiet Title Act. 20 The United States has waived its sovereign immunity as to quiet title-type actions. See 28 21 U.S.C. § 2409a(a) (“The United States may be named as a party defendant in a civil action under 22 this section to adjudicate a disputed title to real property in which the United States claims an 23 interest, other than a security interest or water rights.”). 24 3 of 7 1 First, BLM argues that because SAM seeks only to limit the scope of a purported 2 easement as opposed to declaring a disputed title, the action is not contemplated under 3 § 2409a(a). But there is in fact a dispute over title to the Road. SAM alleges that the Patent 4 reserved for the United States only a “road easement,” not title to the Road (Compl. ¶ 4). 5 Elsewhere in its own motion, BLM not only acknowledges but emphasizes that the core of the 6 present dispute is over title to the Road: 11 SAM characterizes the “Reservation” as having “created a road easement for the benefit of the United States”—however, that characterization is belied by the plain terms of the reservation language in the 1967 patent. . . . Rather, the 1967 patent conveyed title to the larger property described in the patent and then reserved from that title conveyance the roadway described in the reservation. Quite plainly, the United States did not reserve an easement (or right-of-way) for use of the described roadway but rather reserved title to the described roadway (and, according to the patent language, “all appurtenances thereto”) when it issued the 1967 patent . . . . 12 (Mot. Dismiss 3:8–20, ECF No. 5 (citation omitted)). Because there is a dispute over title 13 between SAM and BLM, there is jurisdiction under § 2409a(a). See Leisnoi, Inc. v. United 14 States, 170 F.3d 1188, 1191–92 (9th Cir. 1999). 7 8 9 10 15 Second, BLM takes issue with the way the case has been pled. Although there are 16 nominally two claims pled, the action is in essence a single-count action to quiet title to the 17 Road. Plaintiff’s invocation of the Declaratory Judgment Act may be superfluous in light of the 18 claim under the Quiet Title Act, but that does not change the nature of the action as one for quiet 19 title. Actions for declaratory judgment as to rights in real estate are by definition quiet title 20 actions. The broad “declaratory judgment” action is a modern statutory device encompassing 21 many kinds of longstanding common law actions, such as actions to quiet title to real estate. See 22 Kress v. Corey, 189 P.2d 352, 363–64 (Nev. 1948) (“The State of Nevada adopted the Uniform 23 Declaratory Judgment Act in 1929. . . . The federal Declaratory Judgment Act was passed in 24 4 of 7 1 1934. For many years prior to the adoption of any such statutes courts have nonetheless been 2 rendering declaratory judgments, that is, the declaration of the pre-existing rights of the litigants 3 without any coercive decree, in such cases as quiet title suits . . . .” (citation omitted)). The 4 Court will dismiss the separate declaratory judgment claim as redundant with the quiet title claim 5 but will not dismiss the quiet title claim simply because the prayer for relief does not seek to 6 “quiet title” in those terms but rather seeks a declaration of rights and duties as to the Road. The 7 prayer for relief is appropriately crafted to a quiet title claim. 8 9 Third, BLM argues that only the United States may be named as a party under the Quiet Title Act. Where a federal agency is named, however, the suit is simply construed as a quiet title 10 action against the United States for the purposes of the Quiet Title Act. Wright v. Gregg, 685 11 F.2d 340, 341–42 (9th Cir. 1982). The Court will not explicitly substitute the United States for 12 BLM unless BLM requests it. 13 Finally, BLM argues that the action is barred by the 12-year statute of limitations: 14 Any civil action under this section, except for an action brought by a State, shall be barred unless it is commenced within twelve years of the date upon which it accrued. Such action shall be deemed to have accrued on the date the plaintiff or his predecessor in interest knew or should have known of the claim of the United States. 15 16 17 28 U.S.C. § 2409a(g). The statute of limitations under the Quiet Title Act is jurisdictional. Fid. 18 Exploration & Prod. Co. v. United States, 506 F.3d 1182, 1185–86 (9th Cir. 2007). Because a 19 statute of limitations is an affirmative defense, a court normally cannot dismiss thereunder unless 20 the defense appears on the face of the pleading to be dismissed. United States ex rel. Air Control 21 Techs., Inc. v. Pre Con Indus., Inc., 720 F.3d 1174, 1178 (9th Cir. 2013). However, where a 22 statute of limitations is jurisdictional, as here, a plaintiff must disprove the defense to survive a 23 24 5 of 7 1 Rule 12(b)(1) motion. Tosco Corp. v. Cmtys. for a Better Env’t, 236 F.3d 495, 499 (9th Cir. 2 2001). 3 BLM argues that SAM or its predecessors knew or should have known of the United 4 States’ interest in the Road in 1967 when it issued the Patent. But the Court of Appeals has 5 rejected this precise argument where the dispute does not arise at the time of the issuance of a 6 patent but only later, as here. See Leisnoi, Inc. v. United States, 267 F.3d 1019, 1024–25 (9th Cir. 7 2001) (“It makes no sense to start limitations running because of an event that creates no dispute 8 and is not involved in the controversy against which a limitations defense is asserted. Nor do the 9 rules of statutory construction require such a result.”). SAM provides the declarations of two 10 persons who argue that they did not and should not have known of the United States’ disputed 11 interest in the Road. (See Von Sorenson Decl. ¶¶ 4–7, ECF No. 10-2 (attesting that he owned the 12 relevant land from 1984 to 2010 and was never told by the Government “that the public had the 13 right to use the road”); Pickens Decl. ¶¶ 3, 6, 13, ECF No. 10-3 (attesting that she is the 14 President of SAM, which acquired the relevant land in 2011, and that she did not become aware 15 of the United States’ claim that the public had the right to use the Road until 2013)). BLM has 16 provided no evidence that the present dispute over public use of the Road in fact arose more than 17 12 years before SAM filed the Complaint. The Court therefore finds that the statute of 18 limitations does not bar the present action. In reply, BLM argues that its motion is moot due to SAM’s filing of the Amended 19 20 Complaint (“AC”). But the issue of a court’s subject matter jurisdiction is never moot while an 21 action remains pending. It is appropriate for the Court to consider the issue as against the AC. 22 The AC makes the same relevant allegations as the Complaint did and lists the same claims. 23 /// 24 6 of 7 CONCLUSION 1 2 IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 5) is GRANTED IN 3 PART and DENIED IN PART. The Quiet Title Act claim may proceed, but the separate claim 4 under the Declaratory Judgment Act is dismissed. 5 IT IS SO ORDERED. 6 DATED: 20th day of of April, 2017. Dated thisThis 13th dayMarch, 2017. 7 8 9 _____________________________________ ROBERT C. JONES United States District Judge 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 7 of 7

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