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United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
May 12, 2009, Argued; June 22, 2009, Decided
[*332] EASTERBROOK, Chief Judge. Wisconsin Valley Improvement Company operates dams and other improvements in or near the Wisconsin River. Some of the dams need licenses from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. When the Company proposed to renew one hydropower license, the United States Forest Service asked the Commission to condition renewal on steps that would curtail flooding of federally owned lands and compensate the United States for the loss of use. The Company replied that it enjoys flowage easements over these lands-- easements that, the Company maintains, arose by the passage of time ("prescription") rather than written conveyances. [**2] According to the Company, these easements made the proposed conditions unnecessary and inappropriate.
[*333] A brief filed with the Commission in February 1996 rejoined that the Commission is entitled to impose the conditions whether or not the Company has a flowage easement and added that the Forest Service does not concede the Company's claim of a flowage easement. The Commission imposed the requested conditions. A petition for review was denied, for the most part, by Wisconsin Valley Improvement Co. v. FERC, 236 F.3d 738, 344 U.S. App. D.C. 371 (D.C. Cir. 2001), which agreed with the Commission that the United States' title to the lands allows the Commission to curtail flooding and require compensation whether or not the Company has a flowage easement. Id. at 742--43.
Seventeen years after the Forest Service asked the Commission to impose conditions designed to reduce flooding, and more than 12 years after the Forest Service declined to concede that the lands are subject to a flowage easement, the Company filed this suit under the Quiet Title Act, 28 U.S.C. §2409a. The statute of limitations for quiet-title suits against the United States is 12 years. 28 U.S.C. §2409a(g). The district court concluded that the Company's [**3] claim had accrued no later than February 1996, when the Forest Service questioned the existence of the asserted flowage easement. Because the suit was not filed until June 2008 it is untimely. 2008 U.S. Dist. Lexis 98092 (W.D. Wis. Dec. 2, 2008). The district court dismissed the suit under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1), ruling that an untimely action against the United States does not come within the court's subject-matter jurisdiction.
On appeal, the United States defends that jurisdictional characterization. The argument starts from the premise that sovereign immunity limits the jurisdiction of the Judicial Branch. ] Suits against the United States are permissible only when authorized by statute; the period of limitations is a condition on the waiver of sovereign immunity; thus an untimely suit is outside the court's subject-matter jurisdiction. The problem with this argument lies in the premise: Sovereign immunity is not a jurisdictional doctrine. See United States v. Cook County, 167 F.3d 381 (7th Cir. 1999). Subject-matter jurisdiction means adjudicatory competence over a category of disputes. See Kontrick v. Ryan, 540 U.S. 443, 124 S. Ct. 906, 157 L. Ed. 2d 867 (2004); Eberhart v. United States, 546 U.S. 12, 126 S. Ct. 403, 163 L. Ed. 2d 14 (2005). Multiple [**4] statutes authorize federal district courts to adjudicate suits arising under federal law in which the United States is a party. See, e.g., 28 U.S.C. §1331, §1346; 5 U.S.C. §702. Section 2409a, in particular, permits the adjudication of quiet-title actions in which the United States claims an interest in real property. No more is needed for subject-matter jurisdiction. Timely suit is a condition of relief, to be sure, but time limits in litigation do not detract from a court's adjudicatory competence.
Full case includes Shepard's, Headnotes, Legal Analytics from Lex Machina, and more.
569 F.3d 331 *; 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 13281 **
WISCONSIN VALLEY IMPROVEMENT COMPANY, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant-Appellee.
Prior History: [**1] Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. No. 08-cv-378-slc--Barbara B. Crabb, Chief Judge.
Wis. Valley Improvement Co. v. United States, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 98092 (W.D. Wis., Dec. 2, 2008)
easement, subject-matter, flowage, limitations, accrues, district court, conditions, suits, time limit, prescription, untimely
Civil Procedure, Subject Matter Jurisdiction, Jurisdiction Over Actions, General Overview, Governments, Legislation, Statute of Limitations, Time Limitations, Real Property Law, Title Quality, Adverse Claim Actions, Quiet Title Act, Federal & State Interrelationships, State Sovereign Immunity, Waiver of Immunity, Responses, Defenses, Demurrers & Objections, Motions to Dismiss