A squabble over a forest road may pave the way for further narrowing of “jurisdictional” timing rules
on Nov 28, 2022 at 2:21 pm
Wednesday’s argument in Wilkins v. United States is next in a protracted line of cases in which the court has considered whether statutory bars to causes of action are firm “jurisdictional” rules or instead more forgiving claims-processing rules. Generally speaking, that line of cases has limited the circumstances in which statutes that impose timing requirements on federal causes of action are regarded as jurisdictional – which means that they automatically and categorically keep a case out of court. The trend appears largely, if not entirely, in cases against the United States. At a big-picture level, these cases limit the ability of the federal government to use these “technicalities” to avoid scrutiny in litigation of its activities.
Why, you might ask, should this matter? In most cases, perhaps, it would not. If a statute of limitations requires that an action be filed within 12 years (like the statute at issue in Wilkins), then a later action usually is going to fail. But unless the provision is jurisdictional, the plaintiff at least has a chance to seek “equitable tolling,” which would allow the court to forgive the lateness of the complaint based on the particular facts of the case. Another possibility (presented here) is that the “jurisdictional” treatment of the bar would affect minor procedural details of the case. In the case at hand, Larry Wilkins and Jane Stanton complain about the use of a road that passes by their homes into the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana. Specifically, they claim that the easement under which that road passes over that land did not contemplate the general public use of the road that the Forest Service presently tolerates (or even encourages).
Wilkins and Stanton brought a complaint under the federal Quiet Title Act, a vehicle for challenging the federal government’s assertion of interests in land. The question whether the complaint was timely depends on when Wilkins and Stanton should have understood that the road would be open to the public. In most contexts, a court assessing the complaint would assume the correctness of factual allegations in the complaint and give the plaintiffs a free opportunity to develop and introduce evidence before rejecting those allegations. When the facts determine jurisdiction, though, a court (at least in the 9th Circuit) can rely freely on evidence outside the complaint and dismiss the complaint without following the normal rules for factual development. That is what happened to Wilkins and Stanton here, as the lower court ruled that the 12-year statute of limitations in the Quiet Title Act was jurisdictional and dismissed their complaint out of hand. That disposition allows Wilkins to claim that the case would come out differently if the statute of limitations was merely a claims-processing rule instead of a stark jurisdictional bar.
The briefs of the parties provide a remarkable example of ships that pass in the night. Wilkins presents a typical linear argument that the lower court’s analysis of the Quiet Title Act cannot be reconciled with the Supreme Court’s recent decisions distinguishing between jurisdictional bars and claims-processing rules. Wilkins emphasizes the court’s unanimous decision this spring in Boechler v. Commissioner rejecting a similar argument by the Internal Revenue Service. His argument has three steps. First, modern cases like Boechler require a clear statement for a statute of limitations to operate as jurisdictional. Second, the statute in this case provides no clear statement (or even an ambiguous statement) that it should be read as jurisdictional. Third, crucially, the modern cases frequently disregard earlier readings of federal statutes as reflecting an era described in Boechler as one “when the Court’s use of ‘jurisdictional’ was less than meticulous.” The government’s brief, by contrast, is devoted almost entirely to arguing that the court’s earlier cases involving the Quiet Title Act already have determined that its statute of limitations is jurisdictional. Indeed, the government does not even try to present a sustained argument that its reading of that statute would prevail under the modern cases on which Wilkins relies.
A casual observer sees a prominent red flag when the government brief relies entirely on precedent and can’t bring itself to argue that the government’s position tracks the court’s current rules of statutory interpretation. Several other features of the case mark this as a grant for the purpose of reversal. Most obvious is the triviality of the dispute; usage rights on a road in rural Montana are not typical fodder for the high court’s docket, and it is doubtful that the complaint Wilkins filed would be timely even under ordinary rules for factual development. Also, there is no serious argument of a circuit conflict; several courts of appeals have considered the question at issue here and none has treated this rule as anything other than jurisdictional.
We’ll know more on Wednesday, but my intuition is that what we’ll see then is a court preparing to reverse the government (yet again).