March 28, 2023

Supreme Court Decides Wilkins, et al. v. United States

On March 28, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Wilkins, et al. v. United States, No. 21-1164, holding that the Quiet Title Act’s 12-year limitation period is a “nonjurisdictional claims-processing rule” that does not impose a per se, jurisdictional bar on untimely claims.

In 1962, the United States was granted an easement over Robins Gulch Road in rural Montana, which it interprets as allowing public use of the road. Petitioners Larry Steven Wilkins and Jane Stanton, who acquired property along Robins Gulch Road in 1991 and 2004, respectively, maintain that the easement does not permit public access on the road. In 2018, Petitioners brought suit under the Quiet Title Act to resolve the property dispute. The United States argued that the action was barred by 28 U.S.C. § 2409a(g), which requires civil actions under the Act to “commence[ ] within twelve years of the date upon which it accrued.” The District Court found that § 2409a(g) barred Petitioners’ claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that § 2409a(g) is a “nonjurisdictional claims-processing rule,” created “to promote the orderly progress of litigation by requiring that the parties take certain procedural steps at certain specified times.” The Court contrasted such “procedural rules” with jurisdictional ones that “may be raised at any time” and “have a unique potential to disrupt the orderly course of litigation.” Under the “traditional tools of statutory construction,” the Court stated that it will “treat a procedural requirement as jurisdictional only if Congress clearly states that it is.” The Court noted that, in applying the “clear statement rule,” “most time bars are nonjurisdictional.”

The Court could not find a clear jurisdictional statement in § 2409a(g) that “speaks only to a claim’s timeliness” and is “well afield” from the Act’s jurisdictional grant, 28 U.S.C. § 1346(f). The Court rejected the United States’ argument that prior Supreme Court opinions have interpreted § 2409a(g) as jurisdictional, as well as the dissenting opinion’s suggestion that courts should use different rules of interpretation for statutes that waive sovereign immunity, like the Quiet Title Act.

Justice Sotomayor authored the majority opinion, joined by Justices Kagan, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, Barrett, and Jackson. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito. 

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