John R. Sand & Gravel Company v. United States

PETITIONER: John R. Sand & Gravel Company
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Marion County Superior Court: Criminal Division

DOCKET NO.: 06-1164
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

CITATION: 552 US 130 (2008)
GRANTED: May 29, 2007
ARGUED: Nov 06, 2007
DECIDED: Jan 08, 2008

ADVOCATES:
Jeffrey K. Haynes - on behalf of the Petitioner
Malcolm L. Stewart - on behalf of the Respondent

Facts of the case

John R. Sand & Gravel Company had leased the rights to mine sand and gravel on a piece of Michigan property that also contained an old landfill. After thousands of drums of illegally-buried industrial waste were discovered in the landfill, the EPA started a clean-up operation. In 1994 the EPA erected a security fence around its operations. Although John R. Sand kept mining other parts of the property, the fence blocked certain mining sites. John R. Sand's ability to mine the area was still impeded after the EPA moved the fence in 1998. In 2002 John R. Sand brought suit against the government, arguing that the restrictions on its operations amounted to a Fifth Amendment taking of property. The Tucker Act waives the government's sovereign immunity for such suits, but the Act has a six-year statute of limitations. John R. Sand argued that the issue in its claim originated in 1998 when the EPA moved its fence and for the first time obtained an order granting it unrestrained access to the property. The government countered that the claim actually accrued back in 1994 when the fence first went up, which would make the suit untimely. The U.S. Court of Federal Claims ruled that the suit was timely, but it also ruled that the government was not liable for a Fifth Amendment taking.

In John R. Sand's appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, the issue of the statute of limitations was raised again - not by either of the parties, but by a group of corporations who were not parties to the case. Citing its own precedents, the Federal Circuit ruled that the statute of limitations was jurisdictional. Jurisdictional requirements determine whether courts can hear a case. They cannot be waived by the parties to the case, and courts can consider jurisdictional issues on the courts' own initiative. The Federal Circuit ruled that John R. Sand's claim accrued no later than 1994. Since the suit fell outside the time limit, the Federal Circuit ruled that it lacked jurisdiction and it dismissed the case without considering the merits of the Fifth Amendment claim.

Question

Is the six-year statute of limitations in the Tucker Act a jurisdictional requirement?

Media for John R. Sand & Gravel Company v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 06, 2007 in John R. Sand & Gravel Company v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 08, 2008 in John R. Sand & Gravel Company v. United States

Stephen G. Breyer:

The statute of limitations that governs this case is a special statute aimed just to the Court of Federal Claims and it has – it's a six-year statute in the actions timely only if it's brought within six years after the time that litigants claim accrues.

Now, here in the lower courts, United States in effect conceded that the litigant's claim was timely and when it got to the Court of Appeals, the United States said nothing about it.

Normally, if a litigant doesn't say anything about it, it's waived, but here, the appellate court raised the timeliness issue on its own, and decided that the litigant was out of luck, his claim was too late.

So, we have to decide, even though the normal rule is if the Government will defend as defendant says nothing about the matter, it's waived, forget it, we have to decide whether the particular statute at issue here, this Court of Claims statute is special in this respect and it requires a dismissal of an untimely claim even though the defendant never said anything.

That's how we take the case.

Now, we hold that the statute of limitations governing the Court of claims is special and it does require the dismissal.

Well, why?

Because in a string of cases beginning in 1883, the Court has basically said that and held that.

For example, a long time ago, hundred -- more than a hundred years ago, it said it is the duty of the Court of claims to raise the limitations question whether in effect, the defendant did this, raised it or not.

The petitioner says that we overturn these cases in Irwin Versus Department of Veterans Affairs, a case we decided in 1990.

We agree with the petitioner that Irwin does take a different approach towards interpreting statute of limitations affecting the Government, but we don't agree that Irwin overruled our earlier cases interpreting this particular statute nor do we think we should now overrule those earlier cases.

It may be that when you look at Irwin and then you look at the earlier cases, the earlier cases do seem anomalous, but still, principles of stare decisis convince us we should not overturn.

Justice Brandeis once observed that in most matters, it is more important that the applicable rule of law be settled than that it'd be settled right.

And to overturn a set of decisions settling one matter of the kind that Justice Brandeis was talking about, simply because we might believe that that decision is no longer right and we can get a better one now, would inevitably reflect the willingness to reconsider other matters of the same kind and that willingness could itself threaten to substitute disruption and confusion and uncertainty for what the law needs in terms of stability.

We find nothing in this case sufficient to overcome these general considerations and for that reason, we affirm the Court of Appeals decision.

Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion which Justice Ginsberg has joined and Justice Ginsburg has filed a dissenting opinion.