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LLC v. United States

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

July 23, 2018

NE 32ND STREET, LLC, c/o Mr. William Swain as agent for the Frank Sawyer Revocable Trust5455 Via Delray Delray Beach, FL 33484as agent for the Frank Sawyer Revocable Trust, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant-Appellee.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 9:16-cv-80802-RLR

          Before WILLIAM PRYOR and MARTIN, Circuit Judges, and HALL, [*] District Judge.

          WILLIAM PRYOR, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         This appeal requires us to decide whether a conservation restriction imposed in 2013 on a property owned by the Frank Sawyer Revocable Trust restarted the 12-year statute of limitations of the Quiet Title Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2409a, so that NE 32nd Street, LLC, as agent for the trust, can sue to extinguish a spoilage easement granted to the federal government in 1938. The trust owns a piece of land on the Intracoastal Waterway in Florida. In 1938, its predecessor in interest granted a spoilage easement that allows the government to deposit dredged material on the property. And in 2013, the government granted the trust a building permit that imposes strict conservation requirements on the land. Three years later, NE 32nd filed an action against the government to extinguish the 1938 spoilage easement. It argued that the 2013 permit restarted the statute of limitations, but the district court disagreed and dismissed the complaint. Because the statute of limitations bars a challenge to the eighty-year-old easement and the 2013 permit did not change the terms of that easement to the detriment of the trust, we affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Frank Sawyer Revocable Trust owns a piece of property on the Intracoastal Waterway in Florida. In 1938, its predecessor in interest granted the United States "the perpetual right and easement to deposit upon the [property] material that may at any time be dredged in the construction and maintenance of the . . . Waterway." Three quarters of a century later, the government issued the trust a permit to fill and build on part of the property. The 2013 permit also imposed strict conservation restrictions on much of the property. For example, the permit requires the trust to "maintain the [relevant] areas . . . in their natural state in perpetuity," forbids the "[d]umping or placing [of] soil or other substance or material as landfill or [the] dumping or placing of trash, waste[, ] or unsightly or offensive material," prohibits many kinds of "[s]urface use," and demands that "only clean fill material" be used on the property.

         Three years later, NE 32nd Street, LLC, as agent for the trust, sued the government under the Quiet Title Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2409a, and "request[ed] entry of a judgment . . . cancelling the [1938 easement] and releasing [the property] from all burdens and obligations created thereunder." NE 32nd underscored that when the government issued the 2013 permit with its strict conservation requirements, the government "committed an act wholly inconsistent with its future use and enjoyment of the [1938 spoilage easement]." NE 32nd argued that this tension between the 1938 easement and 2013 permit required the district court to extinguish the easement.

         The government moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction based on a provision of the Act that states that an action against the government "shall be barred unless it is commenced within twelve years of the date upon which it accrued." Id. § 2409a(g). It argued that this limitations period is jurisdictional. The government maintained that the challenged easement was granted in 1938 and that the "predecessor in interest [of the trust] knew or should have known of the claim of the United States [to the easement] since [this date]."

         The district court initially denied the motion, but it later granted a motion for reconsideration and dismissed the complaint. It explained that the "adverse interests were present in this case in 1938" and that the issuance of the 2013 permit "did not abolish [the] preexisting notice [that the trust had] of the United States'[s] asserted interest."

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         We review de novo both "a district court's application of a statute of limitations," F.E.B. Corp. v. United States, 818 F.3d 681, 685 (11th Cir. 2016) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted), and its "grant of [a] motion[] to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction," Broward Gardens Tenants Ass'n v. U.S. Envtl. Prot. Agency, 311 F.3d 1066, 1072 (11th Cir. 2002).

         III. DISCUSSION

         The Act provides that an action to quiet title brought by a private party against the United States "shall be barred unless it is commenced within twelve years of the date upon which it accrued." 28 U.S.C. § 2409a(g). This limited "waiver of sovereign immunity . . . is jurisdictional," F.E.B., 818 F.3d at 685, and we "must be careful not to interpret it in a manner that would extend the waiver beyond that which Congress intended," id. at 686 (quoting Block v. North Dakota ex rel. Bd. of Univ. & Sch. Lands, 461 U.S. 273, 287 (1983)) (internal quotation marks omitted). Indeed, the Supreme Court has underscored that the Act represents a "careful and thorough remedial scheme" that litigants cannot "circumvent[] by artful pleading." Block, 461 U.S. at 285 (quoting Brown v. Gen. Servs. Admin., 425 U.S. 820, 833 (1976)).

         The running of the statute of limitations starts "on the date the plaintiff or his predecessor in interest knew or should have known of the claim of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2409a(g). We define this "claim" in terms of a property interest of the United States that is actually "adverse[]" to the interest asserted by the plaintiff. Werner v. United States, 9 F.3d 1514, 1519 (11th Cir. 1993). It is not enough that the government asserts "some interest-any interest-in the property." Id. Indeed, if the interests asserted by the parties are capable of peaceful coexistence-such as if the plaintiff asserts that he owns a fee simple subject to an easement while the government claims the complementary easement-then the clock will not run. In contrast, adversity arises if ...


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