SCOTUS Locks Crosshairs on Key Property Rights Issue

by: Michael Realbuto
29 Nov 2022

Although our blog primarily focuses on eminent domain related issues in the courts, our ears perk up whenever the High Court decides to clarify a significant property rights issue. In Wilkins v. United States, No. 21-1164, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear argument on November 30, 2022, regarding the following question presented:

Two Montana landowners filed a quiet title action seeking to resolve a dispute over the scope of an easement held by the United States that runs across their land and the federal government’s duties under the easement. The District Court held that the Quiet Title Act’s statute of limitations is jurisdictional, found that the landowners did not prove that their claims arose within twelve years of the lawsuit being filed, and dismissed the case. The District Court’s treatment of the statute of limitations as jurisdictional—rather than a claim-processing rule—subjected the landowners to different standards for resolving the motion to dismiss, allowing the court to dismiss the case without holding a hearing to determine and resolve disputed facts.

In conflict with the Seventh Circuit, the Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding the Quiet Title Act’s statute of limitations is jurisdictional.

The question presented is: Whether the Quiet Title Act’s Statute of Limitations is a jurisdictional requirement or a claim-processing rule?

Larry Wilkins and Jane Stanton live along a one-mile-long dirt road called Robbins Gulch Road in western Montana. The road provides access between a public highway and an entrance to Bitterroot National Forest, a 1.6-million-acre forest in which the government allows timber harvesting and public recreation. Both Mr. Wilkins’s and Mrs. Stanton’s properties are burdened by an easement owned by the federal government and managed by the United States Forest Service (Forest Service). The deeds by which the government obtained its easement state that the road was to be “improved, used, operated, patrolled, and maintained and known as the Robbins Gulch road, Project Number 446.” A letter accompanying the deeds further provided that the “[p]urpose of the road” was for “timber harvest.” Wilkins and Stanton claim that until 2006, the government complied with the terms of the deeds and the scope of its easement, and the government’s use of the road did not interfere with the use and enjoyment of their property.

However, things changed in 2006 when the Forest Service commissioned a sign to be installed along Robbins Gulch Road that read “public access thru private lands.” The sign effectively expanded the use of the easement, and Mr. Wilkins, Mrs. Stanton, and their neighbors had to deal with trespassers on their private property, theft of their personal property, people shooting at their houses, people hunting both on and off the easement, and people traveling at dangerous speeds on and around Robbins Gulch Road. Additionally, the increased use of the easement has caused erosion of the road that affects the adjacent property. In 2017, the property owners requested help from the Forrest Service but that request was ultimately declined.

Unable to get help from the Forrest Service, Wilkins then filed a claim against the government in district court under the Quiet Title Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2409a, contending that the government exceeded the scope of the easement by opening the road to the public. The district court dismissed the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction for failure to file his claim prior to the expiration of the Act’s twelve-year statute of limitations. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal, and Wilkins appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Act’s statute-of-limitations provision is not a jurisdictional bar preventing him from bringing his claim against the government, but is instead a “claim-processing rule” that places the burden of proving the statute of limitations on the moving party and requires the court to weigh competing evidence regarding waiver of the statute of limitations.

Our colleagues at the Pacific Legal Foundation (“PLF”) represent the property owners and we wish them good luck. PLF has successfully represented property owners before the Supreme Court on several occasions. Recently, they represented a strawberry farmer from California and successfully argued that it was a per se taking when a governmental regulation permitted union organizers limited access to private farm property. The Supreme Court’s opinion of that case can be found here and our blog about it can be found here. We will be sure to keep an eye on the Wilkins case for any updates…

One of the easiest ways for property owners to protect their rights is to retain experienced counsel as early as possible. For over 55 years, McKirdy, Riskin, Olson & DellaPelle, P.C. has concentrated its practice in eminent domain law and real estate tax appeals. Our firm has earned a reputation for persistently defending its clients’ constitutionally-recognized property rights. Please feel free to contact us for a free consultation.