Wilkie v. Robbins

Facts of the Case

Plaintiff-respondent Robbins’ Wyoming guest ranch was a patchwork of land parcels intermingled with tracts belonging to other private owners, the State of Wyoming, and the National Government. The previous owner granted the United States an easement to use and maintain a road running through the ranch to federal land in return for a right-of-way to maintain a section of road running across federal land to otherwise isolated parts of the ranch. When Robbins bought the ranch, he took title free of the easement, which the Bureau of Land Management had not recorded. Robbins continued to graze cattle and run guest cattle drives under grazing permits and a Special Recreation Use Permit (“SRUP”) issued by the Bureau. Upon learning that the easement was never recorded, a Bureau official demanded that Robbins regrant it, but Robbins declined. Robbins claimed that after negotiations broke down, a Bureau of Land Management’s (“BLM”) employee, Joseph Vessels, and his supervisor, defendant Charles Wilkie, began a campaign of harassment and intimidation to force him to regrant the lost easement. Robbins filed suit against the BLM’s officials for damages and declaratory and injunctive relief including a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”) claim that defendants repeatedly tried to extort an easement from him and that defendants violated his

Question

1) Can government officials acting pursuant to their regulatory authority be guilty of extortion under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) for attempting to obtain property for the benefit of the government? 2) Is a Bivens claim based on Fifth Amendment rights precluded by the availability of judicial review under the Administrative Procedure Act? 3) Does the Fifth Amendment protect against retaliation for exercising a right to exclude the government from one’s property?

CONCLUSION

No, unanswered, and no. The Court ruled 7-2 that neither Bivens nor RICO gives Robbins a cause of action, so he could not sue the government for retaliation. In an opinion by Justice David Souter, the Court declined to extend the availability of Bivens actions to cases of retaliation for the exercise of the right to exclude the government from one’s property. The Court noted that Robbins had other administrative and judicial remedies for the government’s various violations, though it acknowledged that these amounted to a difficult-to-use patchwork. Because of the impossibly of devising a framework to separate constitutional violations from government actions that are merely borderline improper, the Court would not add a Bivens remedy to landowners’ toolkit. The government can be expected to engage in some hardball tactics during land negotiations, the majority held, and inviting an onslaught of Bivens actions in an effort to counter the occasional overreach would be a cure […] worse than the disease. Robbins’s RICO claim failed as well, because extortion has not normally been understood to encompass the actions of government officials seeking to obtain property for the government rather than for themselves. The Court called the cases that Robbins cited in favor of his claim obscure and off-point.

Case Information

  • Citation: 551 US 537 (2007)
  • Granted: Dec 1, 2006
  • Argued: Mar 19, 2007
  • Decided Jun 25, 2007