524 U.S. 38 (1998), 97-731, United States v. Beggerly

Docket Nº:Case No. 97-731
Citation:524 U.S. 38, 118 S.Ct. 1862, 141 L.Ed.2d 32, 66 U.S.L.W. 4436
Case Date:June 08, 1998
Court:United States Supreme Court

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524 U.S. 38 (1998)

118 S.Ct. 1862, 141 L.Ed.2d 32, 66 U.S.L.W. 4436




Case No. 97-731

United States Supreme Court

June 8, 1998

Argued April 27, 1998



In 1979, the United States sued respondents and others to quiet title to land it sought for a federal park, contending that respondents did not have clear title because the Government had never patented the disputed land after acquiring it as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Government officials searched public land records during discovery, but reported to respondents that they found no proof of a grant to a private landowner. A 1982 settlement agreement quieted title in the Government's favor in return for a payment to respondents. In 1994, respondents sued to set aside the settlement agreement and obtain damages, claiming that they had evidence showing that the land had been granted to a private owner before the Louisiana Purchase, but the District Court concluded that it had no jurisdiction to hear the case. The Fifth Circuit reversed, finding two jurisdictional bases: (1) the suit was an "independent action" to set aside the settlement under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b); and (2) the Quiet Title Act (QTA or Act). In reaching the second conclusion, the court found that the QTA's 12-year statute of limitations was subject to equitable tolling and therefore suit was not barred by the fact that respondents had known about the Government's claim since 1979. The court then vacated the settlement agreement and instructed the District Court to quiet title in respondents' favor.


The Fifth Circuit had no jurisdiction over respondents' suit. Pp. 42-49.

(a) Rule 60(b)'s history and language are inconsistent with the Government's position that an "independent action" to set aside a judgment requires an independent source of jurisdiction. The original Rule 60(b) established a new system to govern requests to reopen judgments. Because it was unclear whether that Rule provided the exclusive means for obtaining postjudgment relief, the Rule was amended in 1946 to clarify that nearly all of the old forms of obtaining relief from a judgment were abolished but that the "independent action" survived. However, this does not mean that the requirements for a meritorious independent action have been met here. Such actions should be available only to prevent a grave miscarriage of justice. See Hazel-Atlas Glass Co. v. Hartford-Empire Co., 322 U.S. 238, 244. Respondents' allegation that the United States failed to thoroughly search its records and make

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full disclosure to the District Court regarding the land grant obviously does not approach this demanding standard. Pp. 42-47.

(b) Equitable tolling is not available in a QTA suit. Such tolling is not permissible where it is inconsistent with the relevant statute's text. The QTA's express 12-year statute of limitations runs from the date the plaintiff or his predecessor in interest "knew or should have known" of the United States' claim. 28 U.S.C. § 2409(g). Thus, the Act has already effectively allowed for equitable tolling. See Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs, 498 U.S. 89, 96. Given this fact and the QTA's unusually generous limitations period, extension of the statutory period would be unwarranted. Pp. 47-49.

114 F.3d 484, reversed and remanded.

Rehnquist, C. J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. Stevens, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Souter, J., joined, post, p. 49.

Paul R. Q. Wolfson argued the cause for the United States. With him on the briefs were Solicitor General Waxman, Deputy Solicitor General Schiffer, Deputy Solicitor General Kneedler, Martin W. Matzen, William B. Lazarus, John D. Leshy, and Margaret P. Fondry.

Ernest G. Taylor, Jr., argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were Robert M. Arentson, Jr., and Nancie G. Marzulla.

Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.

In 1979, the United States brought a quiet title action (the Adams litigation) in the Southern District of Mississippi against respondents and nearly 200 other defendants. On the eve of trial, the Government and respondents entered into a settlement whereby title to the disputed land was quieted in favor of the United States in return for a payment of $208,175.87. Judgment was entered based on this settlement agreement. In 1994, some 12 years after that judgment, respondents sued in the District Court to set aside the settlement agreement and obtain a damages award for the disputed land. Their claims for relief were based on the

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court's ancillary jurisdiction, relating back to the Adams litigation, and on the Quiet Title Act (QTA). 28 U.S.C. § 2409a. We hold that respondents were not entitled to relief on either of these grounds.

The land in dispute between the United States and respondents is located on Horn Island. Situated in the Gulf of Mexico approximately 13 miles southwest of Pascagoula, Horn Island is currently within the State of Mississippi. It was, at various times during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, controlled by France, Britain, and Spain. It is part of the territory that came under the control of the United States as a result of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. In 1950, Clark Beggerly, respondents' predecessor-in-interest, purchased color of title to two tracts of land on Horn Island at a tax sale in Jackson County. Beggerly paid $51.20 for one 626-acre tract. He and a friend also purchased a second tract for $31.25. Beggerly retained 103 acres upon a later division of this second tract.

In 1971, Congress enacted legislation authorizing the Department of the Interior to create the Gulf Islands National Seashore, a federal park on lands that include Horn Island. 16 U.S.C. § 459h. The legislation authorized the Secretary of the Interior to acquire privately owned lands within the proposed park's boundaries. § 459h-1. The National Park Service (NPS) began negotiating with respondents to purchase the land. Before any deal could be completed, however, the NPS learned that the United States Government had never patented the property. Believing that this meant that respondents could not have had clear title, the NPS backed out of the proposed deal.

During discovery in the Adams litigation, respondents sought proof of their title to the land. Government officials searched public land records and told respondents that they had found nothing proving that any part of Horn Island had ever been granted to a private landowner. Even after the settlement in the Adams litigation, however, respondents

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continued to search for evidence of a land patent that supported their claim of title. In 1991 they hired a genealogical record specialist to conduct research in the National Archives in Washington. The specialist found materials that, according to her, showed that on August 1, 1781, Bernardo de Galvez, then the Governor General of Spanish Louisiana, granted Horn Island to Catarina Boudreau. If the land had been granted to a private party prior to 1803, title presumably could not have passed to the United States as a result of the Louisiana Purchase. Respondents believed that the Boudreau grant proved that their claim to the disputed land was superior to that of the United States.

Armed with this new information, respondents filed a complaint in the District Court on June 1, 1994. They asked the court to set aside the 1982 settlement agreement and award them damages of "not less than $14,500 per acre" of the disputed land. App. 26. The District Court concluded that it was without jurisdiction to hear respondents' suit and dismissed the complaint.

The Court of Appeals reversed. It concluded that there were two jurisdictional bases for the suit. First, the suit satisfied the elements of an "independent action," as the term is used in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b). According to the Court of Appeals, those elements are:

"(1) a judgment which ought not, in equity and good conscience, to be enforced; (2) a good defense to the alleged cause of action on which the judgment is founded; (3) fraud, accident, or mistake which prevented the defendant in the judgment from obtaining the benefit of his defense; (4) the absence of fault or negligence on the part of the defendant; and (5) the absence of any adequate remedy at law." 114 F.3d 484, 487 (CA5 1997).

In its view, the settlement agreement could therefore be set aside. Second, the Court of Appeals concluded that the QTA conferred jurisdiction. The QTA includes a 12-year statute

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of limitations, which begins to run from the date the plaintiff knows or should have known about the claim of the United States. 28 U.S.C. § 2409a(g). The Court of Appeals noted that respondents knew about the Government's claim for more than 12 years before it filed this suit, but concluded that the 12-year statute was subject to equitable tolling and should be tolled in this case.

Satisfied as to its jurisdiction, the Court of Appeals then addressed the merits. Relying on the Boudreau grant, the court concluded that the "United States has no legitimate claim to the land [and that] the validity of the Beggerlys' title is a legal certainty." 114 F.3d, at 489. It therefore vacated the settlement agreement and remanded the case to the District Court with instructions that it enter judgment quieting title in favor of respondents. One judge dissented. We granted certiorari, 522 U.S. 1038 (1998), and now reverse.

The Government's primary contention is that the Court of Appeals erred in concluding that it had jurisdiction over respondents' 1994 suit. It first attacks the lower court's conclusion that jurisdiction was established because the suit was an "independent action" within the meaning of Rule 60(b). The...

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