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Ryals v. United States

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Eastern Division

July 13, 2017



          John E. Ott Chief United States Magistrate Judge

         In this action, plaintiff Leonard Ryals challenges the United States of America's claim of ownership of the following 40-acre tract of land: the SE¼ of the SW¼ of Section 6, Township 22 South, Range 5 East, Huntsville Meridian, Clay County, Alabama (the “Property”). (Doc. 1 at ¶ 28). Ryals contends that he, not the United States, is the owner of the Property. He has asserted two claims against the United States: a quiet title claim pursuant to the Quiet Title Act (“QTA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2409a, and a taking claim seeking “just compensation” for the alleged taking of his Property.[1]

         Before the court is the United States' motion to dismiss Ryals's claims pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Doc. 18). Ryals has consented to the dismissal of his taking claim (without prejudice), but opposes the dismissal of his QTA claim. (Doc. 24). The court held a hearing on the motion to dismiss, which extended over three days. Both sides offered witness testimony at the hearing. For the reasons set forth below, the United States' motion to dismiss is due to be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. The Quiet Title Act

         The QTA “waives the United States'[ ] sovereign immunity and permit[s] plaintiffs to name it as a party defendant in civil actions to adjudicate title disputes involving real property in which the United States claims an interest.” McMaster v. United States, 177 F.3d 936, 939 (11th Cir. 1999) (quotations and citation omitted). The QTA provides “the exclusive means by which adverse claimants [can] challenge the United States' title to real property.” Block v. N. Dakota ex rel. Bd. of Univ. & Sch. Lands, 461 U.S. 273, 286 (1983).

         An action under the QTA “shall be barred unless it is commenced within twelve years of the date upon which it accrued.” 28 U.S.C. § 2409a(g). A QTA action is deemed to have accrued “on the date the plaintiff or his predecessor in interest knew or should have known of the claim of the United States.” Id. “[B]ecause the statute of limitations circumscribes the scope of the QTA's waiver of sovereign immunity, compliance with the limitations period is jurisdictional.” F.E.B. Corp. v. United States, 818 F.3d 681, 685 (11th Cir. 2016) (citing United States v. Mottaz, 476 U.S. 834, 841 (1986), and Block, 461 U.S. at 292).

         The QTA's limitations period “must be strictly observed” and courts “must be careful not to interpret it in a manner that would ‘extend the waiver [of sovereign immunity] beyond that which Congress intended.'” Block, 461 U.S. at 287 (quoting United States v. Kubrick, 444 U.S. 111, 117-18 (1979)). Accordingly, “the QTA's statute of limitations standard does not require the government to provide explicit notice of its claim in order for the statute of limitations to begin running.” F.E.B. Corp., 818 F.3d at 686 (quotations and citation omitted). Rather, “[a]ll that is necessary is a reasonable awareness that the Government claims some interest adverse to the plaintiff's.” Id. (quotations and citation omitted). Indeed, “the merits of the government's claim are irrelevant: Even invalid government claims trigger the QTA limitations period.” Id. As noted by the United States, “Other circuit courts have articulated the standard this way: ‘[a]s long as the interest claimed is a cloud on title, or a reasonable claim with a substantial basis, it constitutes a claim for purposes of triggering the twelve-year statute of limitations.' Spirit Lake Tribe v. North Dakota, 262 F.3d 732, 738 (8th Cir. 2001) (emphasis added) (quotations and citation omitted); Rio Grande Silvery Minnow (Hybognathus amarus) v. Bureau of Reclamation, 599 F.3d 1165, 1176 (10th Cir. 2010) (‘[T]he United States need not assert a full legal title in the disputed property for the limitations period to accrue; the claimed adverse interest in the title of the property merely must be substantial enough to create a cloud on title.').”[2] (Doc. 26 at 3).

         B. Rule 12(b)(1) Standard

         The United States has moved to dismiss Ryals's QTA claim pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1) challenges subject-matter jurisdiction and may take the form of either a facial attack or a factual attack. Lawrence v. Dunbar, 919 F.2d 1525, 1528-29 (11th Cir. 1990). Here, the United States' jurisdictional challenge to Ryals's QTA claim is a factual attack. (Doc. 18 at 3, n.2). A factual attack “challenges ‘the existence of subject matter jurisdiction in fact, irrespective of the pleadings, and matters outside the pleadings, such as testimony and affidavits, are considered.'” Id. at 1529 (quoting Menchaca v. Chrysler Credit Corp., 613 F.2d 507, 511 (5th Cir. 1980)).[3] When an attack is factual, “the trial court is free to weigh the evidence and satisfy itself as to the existence of its power to hear the case. In short, no presumptive truthfulness attaches to a plaintiff's allegations, and the existence of disputed material facts will not preclude the trial court from evaluating for itself the merits of jurisdictional claims.” Id. (quoting Williamson v. Tucker, 645 F.2d 404, 413 (5th Cir. 1981)).

         The Eleventh Circuit has cautioned, however, that “the district court should only rely on Rule 12(b)(1) if the facts necessary to sustain jurisdiction do not implicate the merits of plaintiff's cause of action.” Douglas v. United States, 814 F.3d 1268, 1275 (11th Cir. 2016) (emphasis in original) (quotations and citation omitted). If the jurisdictional challenge does implicate the merits of the plaintiff's claim, then the proper course of action “is to find that jurisdiction exists and deal with the objection as a direct attack on the merits of the plaintiff's case.” Id. (quotations and citation omitted).

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Identification of the Issues

         The United States argues that the court lacks jurisdiction to hear Ryals's QTA claim because it is barred by the QTA's twelve-year statute of limitations. As noted above, this is a factual challenge to the complaint. (See Doc. 18 at 3, n.2). The United States specifically asserts that Ryals or his predecessor should have known of the United States' claim to the Property “decades ago” based on (1) a proclamation issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 that established the Talladega National Forest and identified the areas that were being reserved for the national forest, which include the land encompassing the Property; (2) a land survey conducted for the U.S. Forest Service in 1986 that marked the western and southern boundaries of the Property as part of the Talladega National Forest; and (3) a U.S. Forest Service map from 1997 showing that the Property is part of the Talladega National Forest. (Doc. 18 at 4-7). Ryals responds that the notice specified by the United States is inadequate to trigger the statute of limitations. (Doc. 24 at 3). Instead, Ryals asserts he first learned of the interest of the United States in the Property after a fire occurred on the Property approximately six years ago. (Id. at 4).

         B. Evidence

         Because this case involves a factual attack to the complaint, the court conducted an evidentiary hearing on the foregoing matters. Four witnesses were called: Garner Westbrook, Michael O. Lange, Leonard Ryals, Bobby Ryals, and Larry Murphy.

         As noted at the outset, the property at dispute is a 40-acre tract of land located in the southeast ¼ of the southwest ¼ of Section[4] 6, Township 22 South, Range 5 East, Huntsville Meridian, Clay County, Alabama. (See Doc. 18-4 at 2). It is within the area known as the Talladega National Forest.[5]

         The United States Forest Service had Section 5 and a portion of Section 6 of Township 22 surveyed in 1986. (Doc. 36 at 53; Doc. 18-4 at 2). Westbrook, a “lands unit leader” with the Forest Service who is charged with acquiring land for the National Forests in Alabama, testified that he believed the survey was done to maintain land lines for the property of the United States. (Doc. 36 at 51 & 55). The survey was documented by a “map drawn from an actual field land survey” that was certified by Guy S. Johnson, a registered professional engineer and land surveyor from Moulton, Alabama, on May 20, 1986. (Doc. 18-4 at 2).

         Westbrook testified that the procedures used in 1986 to survey and mark Forest Service land are consistent with those found in the Forest Service Manual in use today. (Doc. 36 at 66). The relevant portion of the manual, section 7153.62 - Marking and Posting, states:

The location of a property line normally is to be indicated by marking and posting. Marking includes (1) clearing away brush, small trees, and debris along the line; (2) making blazes and hack marks on trees along the line; and (3) painting blazes, posts, and rocks along the line and at corner locations. Posting includes setting such posts at corner sites and, as may be required, along the line, and attaching signs to those posts and to trees standing on the line or serving as corner monuments.

(Def. Exh. 2 (1965 Forest Service Manual) at 21 of 34). A blaze is a mark “made by cutting off, at breast height, a vertical strip of bark and a very thin layer of the underlying live wood tissue.” (Id. at 22). It typically is about 6-8 inches long and 2-4 inches wide, and the top and bottom ends are “smoothed out.” (Id.) It is painted red to represent a Forest Service marking. (Doc. 42 at 12). If the guidelines are followed by the surveyors, the Forest Service property will be marked with blaze marks and signs on the boundaries, indicating the land is Forest Service property.[6] (Id. at 8-13). ...

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