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Court rules on Claims Court powers

The Supreme Court, in the only decision on the merits on Tuesday, ruled 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. The 7-2 ruling came in the case of John R. Sand & Gravel v. U.S. (06-1164).

The Claims Court hears claims against the federal government — such as the property “takings” claim in this case. Under the Tucker Act of 1887, governing such lawsuits, there is a six-year time period for filing such cases. In this case, the government conceded in the Claims Court that some claims were timely, but the issue went unmentioned by the government when the sand and gravel company appealed to the Federal Circuit. An amicus brief raised the issue, and the Federal Circuit felt obliged to rule on the timeliness issue, despite the government’s waiver, finding the lawsuit untimely. The company then appealed to the Supreme Court.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court upheld the Federal Circuit ruling in an opinion written by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, concluding that the result was dictated by the Court’s precedents from 1883, 1887 and 1957, among others.  Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg each filed dissenting opinions. Ginsburg also joined Stevens’ dissent.

The company involved in the case takes stone and sand out of 158 acres of land it has under a mineral lease in Metamora Townshp in Lapeer County, Mich.  The land it leases is adjacent to a landfill that the federal government regulates as a hazardous waste site. The site is regulated because truckloads of liquid industrial waste had been dumped into the landfill, and some of those materials have seeped out, polluting the ground water.

In its lawsuit, John R. Sand contended that the Environmental Protection Agency’s restrictive measures at the site have steadily cut into its business operations, and have all but forced it to shut down its mining and sales operations.  Claiming a “taking” by the federal government, the company sued. The case was dismissed because the trial court and the Federal Circuit found that the claim first arose in 1994, and the lawsuit was filed more than six years beyond that time. The Federal Circuit found that the six-year filing deadline was a jurisdictional limit, and not just a claims-processing limit that could be waived by the government.