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Court holds statute of limitations under Quiet Title Act is not a jurisdictional bar

Justice Sotomayor speaking from the bench while Justice Thomas looks on.

Tuesday’s decision in Wilkins v. United States broke no new ground, as it followed a steady line of cases applying a rule under which time limits in federal statutes do not create jurisdictional bars unless the statute makes that intent clear. This particular case arises under the federal Quiet Title Act, which permits a landowner (like Larry Wilkins and Jane Stanton) to file suit challenging the government’s intrusion on their land (in this case, a public road over an easement that Wilkins and Stanton claim permits no such general use). The statute requires the suit to be filed within 12 years of the intrusion, but Wilkins and Stanton did not meet that deadline. So, if the bar is jurisdictional, they would be completely out of luck. Because the court held that the bar was not jurisdictional, Wilkins and Stanton have an opportunity to persuade the courts that equitable doctrines might forgive the late filing in this particular case.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for a majority of six (all but Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito). Her opinion followed directly in the line of a similar decision written last year by Justice Amy Coney Barrett in Boechler v. Commissioner. Sotomayor wrote that jurisdictional rules “have a unique potential to disrupt the orderly course of litigation.” Most of the time, the process of litigation requires parties to take certain procedural steps at specified times. If parties fail to interpose an objection in a timely manner, it is waived and courts need not (and generally will not) consider it. When a bar is jurisdictional, by contrast, it “may be raised at any time,” even when parties “disclaim [ ] an objection, only to resurrect it when things go poorly for them on the merits.”

The “risk of disruption and waste that accompanies the jurisdictional label” has persuaded the court in recent years to limit application of that label lest it apply whenever Congress creates “a mundane claims-processing rule.” Rather, the Supreme Court now treats such rules as jurisdictional only when “traditional tools of statutory construction … plainly show that Congress imbued a procedural bar with jurisdictional consequences.”

Sotomayor called the application of that standard to the Quiet Title Act “straightforward.” As she pointed out, the statute’s statement that an action is “barred unless it is commenced within twelve years” is one that “speaks only to a claim’s timeliness.” Thus, it only says that the claim is barred after a certain time. Because “nothing conditions the jurisdictional grant on the limitations period,” she reasoned that the 12-year statute of limitations does not impose a jurisdictional bar.

Even the dissenters agreed with much of Sotomayor’s analysis. Their principal argument was that a series of older Supreme Court cases already have determined that the statute of limitations in the Quiet Title Act is jurisdictional. Sotomayor’s opinion went on for several pages reviewing the details of that “trilogy of decisions,” but she came away persuaded that none “definitively interpreted [the statute at hand] as jurisdictional.” Accordingly, she concluded, this case should return to the lower courts to consider whether they should forgive the untimely filing.

As noted at the beginning, nothing in this opinion seems to break new ground. The first part of the opinion recite the now-standard rules for distinguishing between jurisdictional bars and nonjurisdictional processing rules and applies them in a completely predictable way to the Quiet Title Act’s statute of limitations. The only part of the case that seems debatable – the best way to read the court’s early cases on the Quiet Title Act – is unlikely to be an important topic for future Supreme Court discussion.

Recommended Citation: Ronald Mann, Court holds statute of limitations under Quiet Title Act is not a jurisdictional bar, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 29, 2023, 2:58 PM),