552 U.S. 130 (2008), 06-1164, Sand v. United States

Docket Nº:06-1164.
Citation:552 U.S. 130, 128 S.Ct. 750
Opinion Judge:BREYER, Justice
Party Name:JOHN R. SAND & GRAVEL COMPANY, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES.
Attorney:Jeffrey K. Haynes argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Keith C. Jablonski and Gregory C. Sisk Malcolm L. Stewart argued the cause for the United States. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Clement, Acting Assistant Attorney General Tenpas, Deputy Solicitor General...
Judge Panel:BREYER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and SCALIA, KENNEDY, SOUTER, THOMAS, and ALTTO, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which GINSBURG, J., joined, post, p. 140. GINSBURG, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 144. Stevens, Justice with...
Case Date:January 08, 2008
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 130

552 U.S. 130 (2008)

128 S.Ct. 750

JOHN R. SAND & GRAVEL COMPANY, Petitioner,

v.

UNITED STATES.

No. 06-1164.

United States Supreme Court

January 8, 2008

Argued November 6, 2007

[128 S.Ct. 751] CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FEDERAL CIRCUIT No. 06-1164.

Syllabus

In a Court of Federal Claims action, petitioner argued that various federal activities on land for which it held a mining lease amounted to an unconstitutional taking of its leasehold rights. The Government initially asserted that the claims were untimely under the court of claims statute of limitations, but later effectively conceded that issue and won on the merits. Although the Government did not raise timeliness on appeal, the Federal Circuit addressed the issue sua sponte, finding the action untimely.

Held:

The court of claims statute of limitations requires sua sponte consideration of a lawsuit's timeliness, despite the Government's waiver of the issue. Pp. 133-139.

(a) This Court has long interpreted the statute as setting out a more absolute, "jurisdictional" limitations period. For example, in 1883, the Court concluded with regard to the current statute's predecessor that "it [was] the duty of the court to raise the [timeliness] question whether it [was] done by plea or not." Kendall v. United States, 107 U.S. 123, 125-120, 2 S.Ct, 277, 27 L.Ed. 437. See also Finn v. United States, 123 U.S. 227, 8 S.Ct. 82, 31 L.Ed. 128, and Soriano v. United States, 352 U.S. 270, 77 S.Ct. 269, 1 L.Ed.2d 306. That the statute's language has changed slightly since 1883 makes no difference here, for there has been no expression of congressional intent to change the underlying substantive law. Pp.133-136.

(b) Thus, petitioner can succeed only by convincing the Court that it has overturned, or should overturn, its earlier precedent. Pp.136-139.

(1) The Court did not do so in Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs, 498 U.S. 89, 111 S.Ct. 453, 112 L.Ed.2d 435, where it applied equitable tolling to a limitations statute governing employment discrimination claims against the Government. While the Irwin Court noted the similarity of that statute to the court of claims statute, the civil rights statute is unlike the present statute in the key respect that the Court had not previously provided a definitive interpretation. Moreover, the Irwin Court mentioned Soriano, which reflects the particular interpretive history of the court of claims statute, but said nothing about overturning it or any other case in that line. Finally, just as an equitable tolling presumption

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[128 S.Ct. 752] could be rebutted by statutory language demonstrating Congress' contrary intent, it should be rebutted by a definitive earlier interpretation finding a similar congressional intent. Language in Franconia Associates v. United States, 536 U.S. 129, 145, 122 S.Ct. 1993, 153 L.Ed.2d 132, describing the court of claims statute as "unexceptional" and citing Irwin for the proposition "that limitations principles should generally apply to the Government in the same way that they apply to private parties" refers only to the statute's claims-accrual rule and adds little or nothing to petitioner's contention that Irwin overruled earlier cases. Pp. 136-138.

(2) Stare decisis principles require rejection of petitioner's argument that the Court should overturn Kendall, Finn, Soriano, and related cases. Any anomaly such old cases and Irwin together create is not critical, but simply reflects a different judicial assumption about the comparative weight Congress would likely have attached to competing national interests. Moreover, the earlier cases do not produce "unworkable" law, see, e.g., United States v. International Business Machines Corp., 517 U.S. 843, 856, 116 S.Ct. 1793, 135 L.Ed.2d 124. Stare decisis in respect to statutory interpretation also has "special force." Congress, which "remains free to alter what [the Court has] done," Patterson v. McLean Credit Union, 491 U.S. 164, 172-173, 109 S.Ct. 2363, 105 L.Ed.2d 132, has long acquiesced in the interpretation given here. Finally, even if the Government cannot show detrimental reliance on the earlier cases, reexamination of well-settled precedent could nevertheless prove harmful. Overturning a decision on the belief that it is no longer "right" would inevitably reflect a willingness to reconsider others, and such willingness could itself threaten to substitute disruption, confusion, and uncertainty for necessary legal stability. Pp. 138-139.

457 F. 3d 1345, affirmed.

BREYER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and SCALIA, KENNEDY, SOUTER, THOMAS, and ALTTO, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which GINSBURG, J., joined, post, p. 140. GINSBURG, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 144.

Jeffrey K. Haynes argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Keith C. Jablonski and Gregory C. Sisk

Malcolm L. Stewart argued the cause for the United States. With him on the brief were Solicitor General

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Clement, Acting Assistant Attorney General Tenpas, Deputy Solicitor General Kneedler, and Aaron P. Avila.[*]

OPINION

BREYER, Justice

The question presented is whether a court must raise on its own the timeliness of a lawsuit filed in the Court of Federal Claims, despite the Government's waiver of the issue. We hold that the special statute of limitations governing the Court of Federal Claims requires that sua sponte consideration.

I

Petitioner John R. Sand & Gravel Company filed an action in the Court of [128 S.Ct. 753]Federal Claims in May 2002. The complaint explained that petitioner held a 50-year mining lease on certain land. And it asserted that various Environmental Protection Agency activities on that land (involving, e.g., the building and moving of various fences) amounted to an unconstitutional taking of its leasehold rights.

The Government initially asserted that petitioner's several claims were all untimely in light of the statute providing that "[e]very claim of which the United States Court of Federal Claims has jurisdiction shall be barred unless the petition thereon is filed within six years after such claim first accrues." 28 U.S. C. §2501. Later, however, the Government effectively conceded that certain claims were timely. See App. 37a-39a (Government's pretrial brief). The Government subsequently won on the merits. See 62 Fed. CI. 556, 589 (2004).

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Petitioner appealed the adverse judgment to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. See 457 F. 3d 1345, 1346 (2006). The Government's brief said nothing about the statute of limitations, but an amicus brief called the issue to the court's attention. See id., at 1352. The court considered itself obliged to address the limitations issue, and it held that the action was untimely. Id., at 1353- 1360. We subsequently agreed to consider whether the Court of Appeals was right to ignore the Government's waiver and to decide the timeliness question. 550 U.S. 968, 127 S.Ct. 2877, 167 L.Ed.2d 1151 (2007).

II

Most statutes of limitations seek primarily to protect defendants against stale or unduly delayed claims. See, e.g., United States v. Kubrick, 444 U.S. 111, 117, 100 S.Ct. 352, 62 L.Ed.2d 259 (1979). Thus, the law typically treats a limitations defense as an affirmative defense that the defendant must raise at the pleadings stage and that is subject to rules of forfeiture and waiver. See Fed. Rules Civ. Proc. 8(c)(1), 12(b), 15(a); Day v. McDonough, 547 U.S. 198, 202, 126 S.Ct. 1675, 164 L.Ed.2d 376 (2006); Zipes v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 455 U.S. 385, 393, 102 S.Ct. 1127, 71 L.Ed.2d 234 (1982). Such statutes also typically permit courts to toll the limitations period in light of special equitable considerations. See, e.g., Rotella v. Wood, 528 U.S. 549, 560-561, 120 S.Ct. 1075, 145 L.Ed.2d 1047 (2000); Zipes, supra, at 393, 102 S.Ct. 1127; see also Coda v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 920 F. 2d 446, 450-453 (C.A.7 1990).

Some statutes of limitations, however, seek not so much to protect a defendant's case-specific interest in timeliness as to achieve a broader system-related goal, such as facilitating the administration of claims, see, e.g., United States v. Brockamp, 519 U.S. 347, 352-353, 117 S.Ct. 849, 136 L.Ed.2d 818 (1997), limiting the scope of a governmental waiver of sovereign immunity, see, e.g., United States v. Dalm, 494 U.S. 596, 609-610, 110 S.Ct. 1361, 108 L.Ed.2d 548 (1990), or promoting judicial efficiency, see, e.g., Bowles v. Russell, 551 U.S. 205,210-213, 127 S.Ct. 2360, 2365-66, 168 L.Ed.2d 96 (2007). The Court has often read the time limits of these statutes as more absolute, say as requiring

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a court to decide a timeliness question despite a waiver, or as forbidding a court to consider whether certain equitable considerations warrant extending a limitations period. See, e.g., ante, at 212-213; see also Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 514, 126 S.Ct. 1235, 163 L.Ed.2d 1097 (2006). As convenient shorthand, the Court has sometimes referred to the time limits in such statutes as "jurisdictional." See, e.g., Bowles, supra, at 210.

This Court has long interpreted the court of claims limitations statute as setting [128 S.Ct. 754] forth this second, more absolute, kind of limitations period.

A

In Kendall v. United States, 107 U.S. 123, 2 S.Ct. 277, 27 L.Ed. 437 (1883), the Court applied a predecessor of the current 6-year bar to a claim that had first accrued in 1865 but that the plaintiff did not bring until 1872. Id., at 124, 2 S.Ct. 277; see also Act of Mar. 3, 1863, §10...

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