On May 10, 2023, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (“the Court”) issued a wide-ranging opinion – currently pending publication – in the matter of United States of Am. v. 6.03 Acres of Land in the Cty. of Santa Barbara, No. 21-56358, 2023 LEXIS 11452 (9th Cir. May 10, 2023), addressing the revised application of the Quiet Title Act in light of the United States Supreme Court’s March 28, 2023 decision in Wilkins v. United States, 143 S. Ct. 870 (2023), as well as touching upon interesting easement and eminent domain principles.
The facts of this matter commence in 1952, at which time the United States filed an eminent domain action to take possession of land located in Montecito, California that was needed to construct the Ortega Reservoir. A portion of the land being taken was owned by Phillip and Ethyl Cunniff (“the Cunniffs”), who were the owners of numerous acres of additional land in this area. In 1955, a final judgment was entered approving the United States’ acquisition of this portion of the Cunniffs’ land, with the judgment specifying therein that the land had been taken “subject . . . to existing rights of way in favor of the public or third parties for highways [and] roads.”
In 1958, the Cunniffs sold forty-five acres of their remaining land (“the Property”) to Loma Griffith, who then transferred ownership of the Property to Kimball-Griffith, L.P. (“Plaintiff”). The Property was located directly north of the now constructed Ortega Reservoir, with an access road running along the southern edge of the Property just within the boundaries of the reservoir land. In 1989, the federal Bureau of Reclamation granted Santa Barbara County an easement over the access road, with the County installing locked gates across the road blocking public entry.
No further events transpired for more than thirty years, until, in November 2020, Plaintiff filed suit against the United States, various federal commissioners and state county heads, and the Bureau of Reclamation, seeking to reopen the 1955 final judgment based upon the assertion that it possessed a right to use the access road. Amongst the various claims raised, Plaintiff sought ejectment and injunctive relief against the Bureau of Reclamation demanding removal of the gates blocking the access road, taking and conspiracy-to-commit-a-taking claims against Santa Barbara County and other local government pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and a judicial taking claim against the district court itself.
Ultimately, Plaintiff’s case was dismissed in its entirety by the trial court on two bases. First, the trial court found that the controlling statute of limitations had elapsed under the Quiet Title Act (“QTA”), found at 28 U.S.C. § 2409a(a), thereby barring Plaintiff’s claims for lack of jurisdiction. Second, the trial court dismissed Plaintiff’s remaining claims as time-barred, due to Plaintiff’s decades-long failure to allege any property interest in the access road.
Plaintiff appealed the dismissal to the Court, first disputing the application of the QTA’s statute of limitations. In assessing this claim, the Court first explained that the QTA operates to waive federal sovereign immunity with respect to claims challenging title or easements related to federal land, imposing a twelve-year statute of limitations for the commencement of any such claims. 28 U.S.C. § 2409a(g).
Plaintiff contended that the trial court erred in relying on this limitations period, claiming that its suit did not actually involve the QTA at all, as it was allegedly not seeking to bring a claim related to land but instead a claim related to the 1955 judgment. Plaintiff argued that it had thus provided an alternative ground for jurisdiction independent of the QTA, reflected in the fact that the 1955 judgment contained language reserving the right for the court to “make further orders and decrees" related to the taken land.
The Court denied this claim, but in doing so differed from the trial court’s analysis. First, the Court explained that, prior to March 2023, Plaintiff’s claims would have been dismissed on jurisdictional grounds – as the trial court had done – as the QTA’s statute of limitations had originally been interpreted as a jurisdictional requirement. However, this interpretation was changed by the United States Supreme Court’s March 28, 2023 decision in Wilkins v. United States, 143 S. Ct. 870, 881 (2023), wherein the Supreme Court broke from prior precedent and held that the QTA’s limitations period would no longer be applied as a jurisdictional requirement, but instead a “claims-processing rule.” In reaching this holding the Wilkins Court issued the broad-ranging holding that procedural requirements will now only be treated as jurisdictional where Congress clearly states such an intention.
Based on Wilkins, the Court thus held that Plaintiff’s claims could not be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction, but could still be dismissed on the alternate grounds of failure to adequately plead a property interest in the access road. Specifically, the Court observed that all of Plaintiff’s numerous claims were contingent upon it establishing a “property interest in [the] easement over the” access road. Plaintiff claimed it had done so, alleging the Cunniffs had possessed an easement over the access road as owners of property abutting the road, which had then passed to Plaintiff, and which the 1955 judgment had preserved based upon its language specifying that the Property was being taken “subject . . . to existing rights of way.”
Discussing the relevant case law, the Court observed that the owner of property abutting a public street is in-fact considered to hold a private property right “in the nature of an easement in the street,” and thus Plaintiff could have potentially prevailed, but for the dispositive issue that, at the time the Property was taken, the access road had not yet been made available for public use and thus could not be considered a “public street.” The Court also held that Plaintiff had failed to demonstrate that the Cunniffs ever possessed an easement in the Property. Indeed, prior to the eminent domain action, the Cunniffs had owned all of the land both underlying and abutting the access road. Accordingly, as owners of all land related to the access road, it would have been an impossibility for them to hold an easement as “they could not have acquired a private easement” against themselves or against their own property.
Therefore, the Court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of Plaintiff’s action.
The key takeaway from this opinion is of course the application of Wilkins v. United States, its removal of the jurisdictional element from statutes of limitation absent an express Congressional manifestation of an intent to the contrary, and its potentially broad impact. However, also of interest is the Court’s discussion of the intersection between private property ownership and easement interests in abutting public land, and the fact that possession of such an interest can potentially provide grounds for challenging federal title.
For a copy of the decision, please contact Michael O’Donnell at email@example.com, James Mazewski at firstname.lastname@example.org, Kevin Hakansson at email@example.com or Kori Pruett at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael R. O'Donnell