Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Supreme Court Decides John R. Sand & Gravel Co. Case

Jan 8: The Michigan case of John R. Sand & Gravel Company v. U.S. (No. 06-1164) was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The case on appeal from the Court of Appeals, Federal Circuit, Case No. 05-5033. decided on August 9, 2006. According to the Supreme Court docket, the issues in the case are: (1) Whether the statute of limitations in the Tucker Act limits the subject matter jurisdiction of the Court of Federal Claims; and (2) Whether a claim for a permanent physical taking of a portion of real property first accrues upon the government’s temporary exclusion of the property holder from another portion of the property.

The various briefs for Petitioner John R. Sand & Gravel Co.; Brief for Respondent United States; Reply Brief for Petitioner John R. Sand & Gravel Co.; and two amicus briefs from the Pacific Legal Foundation and National Association of Home Builders are available from the links below.

In its 7-2 opinion the Supreme Court said, "The question presented is whether a court must raise on its own the timeliness of a lawsuit filed in the Court of Federal Claims, despite the Government’s waiver of the issue. We hold that the special statute of limitations governing the Court of Federal Claims requires that sua sponte [spontaneous action without prompting from another party] consideration." The High Court opinion said a Federal Appeals Court was correct in raising the deadline question without being asked to do so (sua sponte), and to rule that the company had missed the deadline for suing the Federal government in property disputes. Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas and Alito joined in the opinion. Justice Stevens filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Ginsburg joined and Justice Ginsburg filed a separate dissenting opinion.

In the opinion, the High Court explains that petitioner John R. Sand & Gravel Company filed an action in the Court of Federal Claims in May 2002. The complaint explained that petitioner held a 50-year mining lease on certain land [in Metamora Township in Lapeer County, MI]. And it asserted that various Environmental Protection Agency activities on that land (involving, e.g., the building and moving of various fences) amounted to an "unconstitutional taking of its leasehold rights."The Government initially asserted that petitioner’s several claims were all untimely in light of the statute providing that "[e]very claim of which the United States Court of Federal Claims has jurisdiction shall be barred unless the petition thereon is filed within six years after such claim first accrues.” 28 U. S. C. §2501.

The Government subsequently won on the merits and petitioner appealed the adverse judgment to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The Government’s brief said nothing about the statute of limitations, but an amicus brief called the issue to the court’s attention. The court considered itself obliged to address the limitations issue, and it held that the action was untimely. The Supreme Court subsequently agreed to consider whether the Court of Appeals was right to ignore the Government’s waiver and to decide the timeliness question.

The Supreme Court majority affirmed the Appeals Court decision which said, "Because we conclude that JRS&G did not file its complaint within the six-year limitations period of 28 U.S.C. § 2501, we hold that the Court of Federal Claims lacked jurisdiction. We therefore vacate the Court of Federal Claims’s decision and remand the case to the court with the instruction that it dismiss JRS&G’s complaint." [See WIMS 8/10/06]. Commentary on the SCOTUS Blog indicates the decision means that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit must always consider whether cases making claims against the Federal government were filed on time, even if the Federal government has waived that issue. And, that the Supreme Court concluded the result was dictated by the Court’s precedents from 1883, 1887 and 1957, among others.

In the dissent of Justice Stevens, concurred in by Justice Ginsburg, he said, "With respect to provisions as common as time limitations, Congress, in enacting statutes, and judges, in applying them, ought to be able to rely upon a background rule of considerable clarity. Irwin [Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs, 498 U. S. 89, 95–96 (1990)] announced such a rule, and I would apply that rule to the case before us. Because today’s decision threatens to revive the confusion of our pre-Irwin jurisprudence, I respectfully dissent." Justice Ginsburg indicated that her separate dissent was, "...to explain why I would regard this case as an appropriate occasion to revisit those precedents even if we had not already 'directly overrule[d]' them."

Access the complete opinion, syllabus and dissenting opinions (
click here). Access the SCOTUS commentary (click here). Access the Supreme Court Docket No. 06-1164 (click here). Access the complete Appeals Court opinion (click here). Access links to various briefs in the case (click here). Access a link to the oral argument transcript (click here). Access links to various media reports on the decision (click here). [*Land]