Orff v. United States

PETITIONER: Francis A. Orff, et al.
RESPONDENT: United States, et al.
LOCATION: Texas State Capitol

DOCKET NO.: 03-1566
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 545 US (2005)
GRANTED: Oct 12, 2004
ARGUED: Feb 23, 2005
DECIDED: Jun 23, 2005

ADVOCATES:
Jeffrey P. Minear - argued the cause for Respondent United States
Stuart L. Somach - argued the cause for Respondent Westlands Water District
William M. Smiland - argued the cause for Petitioners

Facts of the case

The Westlands Water District received water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation under a 1963 contract. In 1993 Westlands sued the district for reducing their water supply. California farmers who had bought water from Westlands also sued the bureau, intervening as plaintiffs. After negotiations Westlands agreed to dismiss their suit. But the farmers refused to drop theirs, accusing the bureau of breach of contract. The farmers claimed that as third-party beneficiaries they could enforce the contract and that the United States had waived its sovereing immunity from such suits in the Reclamation Reform Act of 1982. That act allowed parties "to join the United States as a necessary party defendant in any suit" over rights under a federal reclamation contract. The district court held that the farmers were not contracting parties or third-party beneficiaries and thus could not invoke the waiver. The Ninth Circuit affirmed that decision.

Question

Did the Reclamation Reform Act of 1982 waive the United States' sovereign immunity from breach of contract suits?

Media for Orff v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 23, 2005 in Orff v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 23, 2005 in Orff v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in Orff versus United States will be announced by Justice Thomas.

Clarence Thomas:

This case comes us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Petitioner, California Farmers and farming entities purchased water from the respondent, Westlands Water District which receives its water from the United States Bureau of Reclamation under a 1963 contract between Westlands and the Bureau.

In 1993, Westlands and other water districts sued the Bureau for reducing their water supply.

Petitioners, though not parties to the 1963 contract between Westlands and the Bureau intervene as plaintiffs.

After negotiations, all parties except petitioners stipulated to dismissal of the district’s complaint.

Petitioners pressed forward with the claim that the United States had breached the contract that they were third party beneficiaries entitled to enforce the contract, and that the United States had waived its sovereign immunity from their breach of contract suit in Section 390uu of the Reclamation Reform Act of 1982.

The District Court held that petitioners were neither contracting parties nor intended third party beneficiaries of the contract and therefore, could not benefit from Section 390uu’s waiver.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed in relevant part.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Section 390uu does not waive the United States sovereign immunity from petitioner’s suit.

The provision grants consent “to join the United States as a necessary party defendant in any suit to adjudicate” certain right under a federal reclamation contract.

A waiver of sovereign immunity must be strictly construed in favor of the sovereign.

In light of this principle, Section 390uu is best interpreted to grant consent to join the United States in an action between other parties when the action requires construction of a reclamation contract and joinder of the United States is necessary.

Section 390uu does not permit a plaintiff to sue the United States alone.

This interpretation draws support from the statues' use of the words "necessary party", a term of art whose meaning calls to mind Federal Rule of Civil Procedures 19(a)’s requirement for joinder of parties.

The interpretation also draws force from the contrast between Section 390uu’s language which speaks in terms of joinder and the broader phrasing of other statutes that waive immunity from suits against the United States alone, for example, the Tucker Act.

Petitioner’s suit brought solely against the United States and its agents is not an attempt to join the United States as a necessary party defendant within the meaning of Section 390uu.

The opinion of the Court is unanimous.