Block v. North Dakota Board of University and School Lands North Dakota Board of University and School Lands v. Block, s. 81-2337

Decision Date02 May 1983
Docket NumberNos. 81-2337,82-132,s. 81-2337
Citation103 S.Ct. 1811,75 L.Ed.2d 840,461 U.S. 273
PartiesJohn R. BLOCK, Secretary of Agriculture, et al., Petitioners, v. NORTH DAKOTA, ex rel. BOARD OF UNIVERSITY AND SCHOOL LANDS. NORTH DAKOTA, ex rel. BOARD OF UNIVERSITY AND SCHOOL LANDS, Petitioner, v. John R. BLOCK, Secretary of Agriculture, et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

North Dakota filed suit in Federal District Court against several federal officials to resolve a dispute as to ownership of certain portions of a riverbed within the State. The United States claims title to most of the disputed area on the basis of its status as a riparian landowner on a non-navigable river, while the State asserts that the river was navigable when North Dakota was admitted to the Union in 1899 and thus it owns the riverbed under the equal-footing doctrine. In addition to seeking injunctive, declaratory, and mandamus relief under various federal statutes, North Dakota asserted a claim under the Quiet Title Act of 1972 (QTA), by which the United States, subject to certain exceptions, has waived its sovereign immunity and has permitted plaintiffs to name it as a party defendant in civil actions to adjudicate title disputes involving real property. After trial, the court entered judgment for the State, holding that the QTA's 12-year statute of limitations, 28 U.S.C. § 2409a(f), does not apply where the plaintiff is a State. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held:

1. The legislative history establishes that Congress intended the QTA to provide the exclusive means by which adverse claimants can challenge the United States' title to real property. Thus there is no merit to North Dakota's contention that even if suit under the QTA is time-barred under § 2409a(f), the judgment below is still correct because the suit is maintainable as an "officer's suit" for injunctive or mandamus relief against the federal officials charged with supervision of the disputed area. The rule that a precisely drawn, detailed statute pre-empts more general remedies is applicable here. Cf. Brown v. GSA, 425 U.S. 820, 96 S.Ct. 1961, 48 L.Ed.2d 402. Pp. 280-286.

2. The limitations provision in § 2409a(f) is as fully applicable to a State as it is to all others who sue under the QTA. When Congress at- taches conditions, such as a statute of limitations, to legislation waiving the United States' sovereign immunity, those conditions must be strictly observed, and exceptions thereto are not to be lightly implied. Section 2409a(f) expressly states that any civil action is time-barred unless filed within 12 years after the date it accrued. Even assuming that the canon of statutory construction that a sovereign is normally exempt from the operation of a generally worded statute of limitations in the absence of express contrary intent has relevance in construing the applicability to the States of a congressionally imposed statute of limitations not expressly including the States, here the legislative history shows that Congress did not intend to exempt the States from compliance with § 2409a(f). Pp. 286-290.

3. Nor is § 2409a(f) invalid under the equal-footing doctrine and the Tenth Amendment, as North Dakota asserts. A federal law depriving a State of land vested in it by the Constitution would not be invalid on such grounds, but would constitute a taking of the State's property without just compensation, in violation of the Fifth Amendment. Section 2409a(f), however, does not purport to strip anyone of any property or to effectuate a transfer of title. A dismissal pursuant to the statute does not quiet title to the disputed land in the United States; the title dispute remains unresolved. Thus there is no constitutional infirmity in § 2409a(f). Pp. 291-292.

4. If North Dakota's suit is barred by § 2409a(f), the courts below had no jurisdiction to inquire into the merits. Since the lower courts made no findings as to the date on which North Dakota's suit accrued for purposes of the statute, the cases must be remanded for further proceedings. Pp. 292-293.

671 F.2d 271 (8th Cir. 1982), reversed and remanded.

Louis F. Claiborne, Washington, D.C., for petitioners.

Robert O. Wefald, Bismarck, N.D., for respondents.

Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Under the Quiet Title Act of 1972 (QTA),1 the United States, subject to certain exceptions, has waived its sover- eign immunity and has permitted 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. These cases present two separate issues concerning the QTA. The first is whether Congress intended the QTA to provide the exclusive procedure by which a claimant can judicially challenge the title of the United States to real property. The second is whether the QTA's twelve-year statute of limitations, 28 U.S.C. § 2409a(f), is applicable in instances where the plaintiff is a State, such as respondent North Dakota. We conclude that the QTA forecloses the other bases for relief urged by the State, and that the limitations provision is as fully applicable to North Dakota as it is to all others who sue under the QTA.

I

It is undisputed that under the equal footing doctrine first set forth in Pollard's Lessee v. Hagan, 3 How. 212, 11 L.Ed. 565 (1845), North Dakota, like other States, became the owner of the beds of navigable streams in the State upon its admission to the Union. It is also agreed that under the law of North Dakota, a riparian owner has title to the center of the bed of a non-navigable stream. See N.D.Cent.Code § 47-01-15; Amoco Oil Co. v. State Highway Department, 262 N.W.2d 726, 728 (N.D.1978). Because of differing views of navigability, the United States and North Dakota assert competing claims to title to certain portions of the bed of the Little Missouri River within North Dakota. The United States contends that the river is not now and never has been navigable, and it claims most of the disputed area based on its status as riparian landowner.2 North Dakota, on the other hand, asserts that the river was navigable on October 1, 1889, the date North Dakota attained statehood, and therefore that title to the disputed bed vested in it under the equal footing doctrine on that date. Since at least 1955, the United States has been issuing riverbed oil and gas leases to private entities.

Seeking to resolve this dispute as to ownership of the riverbed, North Dakota filed this suit in the District Court against several federal officials.3 The State's complaint requested injunctive and mandamus relief directing the defendants to "cease and desist from develop[ing] or otherwise exercising privileges of ownership upon the bed of the Little Missouri River within the State of North Dakota," and it further sought a declaratory judgment "[d]eclaring the Little Missouri River to be a navigable river for the purpose of determining ownership of the bed." App. 9. As the jurisdictional basis for its suit, North Dakota invoked 28 U.S.C. § 1331 (federal question); 28 U.S.C. § 1361 (mandamus); 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201-2202 (declaratory judgment and further relief) and 5 U.S.C. §§ 701-706 (the judicial review provisions of the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. §§ 551 et seq.). App. 6. North Dakota's original complaint did not mention the QTA. However, the District Court required the State to amend its complaint to recite a claim thereunder. App. to Pet. for Cert. 14a-16a. The State complied and filed an amended complaint. App. 13-16.4

The matter thereafter proceeded to trial. North Dakota introduced evidence in support of its claim that the river was navigable on the date of statehood.5 The federal defendants, while denying navigability, presented no evidence on this point; 6 their evidence was limited to showing, for statute of limitations purposes, that the State had notice of the United States' claim more than twelve years prior to the commencement of the suit.

After trial, the District Court rendered judgment for North Dakota. The court first concluded that the Little Missouri River was navigable in 1889 and that North Dakota attained title to the bed at statehood under the equal footing doctrine and the Submerged Lands Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1311(a). 506 F.Supp. 619, 622-624 (D.N.D.1981). Then, applying what it deemed to be an accepted rule of construction that statutes of limitations do not apply to sovereigns unless a contrary legislative intention is clearly evident from the express language of the statute or otherwise, the court rejected the defendants' claim that North Dakota's suit was barred by the QTA's twelve-year statute of limitations, 28 U.S.C. § 2409a(f). 506 F.Supp., at 625-626.7 The District Court accordingly entered judgment quieting North Dakota's title to the bed of the river. App. to Pet. for Cert. 29a-30a.8 The Court of Appeals affirmed in all respects. 671 F.2d 271 (CA8 1982).

The defendants' petition for certiorari, which we granted, --- U.S. ----, 103 S.Ct. 48, 74 L.Ed.2d 55 (1982), challenged only the Court of Appeals' conclusion that the QTA's statute of limitations is inapplicable to States. North Dakota filed a conditional cross-petition, No. 82-132, asserting that even if its suit under the QTA is barred by § 2409a(f), the judgment below is still correct because the QTA remedy is not exclusive and its suit against the federal officers is still maintainable wholly aside from the QTA. This submission, which the Court of Appeals did not find it necessary to address, is also urged by the State, as respondent in No. 81-2337, as a ground for affirming the judgment in its favor. See United States v. New York Telephone Co., 434 U.S. 159, 166, n. 8, 98 S.Ct. 364, 369, n. 8, 54 L.Ed.2d 376 (1977); Dayton Board of Education v. Brinkman, 433 U.S. 406, 419, 97 S.Ct. 2766, 2775, 53 L.Ed.2d 851 (1977). We now grant the cross-petition, which heretofore has remained pending, and we first address the...

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