Kingman Reef Atoll Dev., L.L.C. v. United States

Decision Date30 June 2014
Docket NumberNo. 06-828L,06-828L
CourtU.S. Claims Court

RCFC 56 Motions for Summary

Judgment; Takings; Equitable

Estoppel; Lost Grant; Adverse

Possession; Statute of Limitations.

Therese Y. Cannata, Cannata, Ching & O'Toole, LLP, San Francisco, California, for plaintiff. With her was Christian P. Porter, Porter, Tom, Quitiquit, Chee & Watts, LLP, Honolulu, Hawaii, of counsel.

Kristine S. Tardiff, Trial Attorney, Environment and Natural Resources Division, United States Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., for defendant. With her were John P. Tustin, Trial Attorney, Environment and Natural Resources Division, Sam Hirsch, Acting Assistant Attorney General, Environment and Natural Resources Division, United States Department of Justice; Robert J. Smith, Assistant Chief, Office of General Counsel, Navy Litigation Office; Mariel J. Combs, Office of the Solicitor, United States Department of the Interior; Elena Onaga, Deputy Section Chief, Pacific Islands Section, NOAA Office of the General Counsel, United States Department of Commerce; and Kevin A. Baumert, Attorney-Advisory, Office of the Legal Advisor, United States Department of State, of counsel.




This case addresses the amended complaint filed by plaintiff, Kingman Reef Atoll Development, L.L.C. (KRAD) in 2012. Originally, Kingman Reef Atoll Investments, L.L.C. (KRAI) and KRAD brought a takings claim before this court alleging that KRAI held fee simple absolute title to Kingman Reef, an atoll in the Pacific Ocean, that KRAD held a leasehold interest, and that the United States government took their real property interest without payment of just compensation. KRAI and KRAD alleged that this taking occurred on January 18, 2001, when the Secretary of the Interior issued SecretarialOrder No. 3223, establishing the Kingman Reef National Wildlife Refuge (Kingman Reef NWR). KRAI and KRAD sought the payment of just compensation, in the amount of $54,500,000.00, pursuant to the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution for the alleged taking of their private property for public use.

KRAI and KRAD alleged by prohibiting public access to Kingman Reef the Kingman Reef NWR prohibited fishing in over 450 square miles in what plaintiff alleged to be "some of the most productive open ocean fishing grounds in the world," and took all rights to access, use, enjoy, conserve, and economically develop Kingman Reef and its surrounding waters from KRAI and KRAD. KRAI and KRAD claimed that Kingman Reef's economic value and/or commercial use includes ecotourism, recreational fishing tourism, commercial fishing operations, and a transfer station for fishing operations.

KRAI is a Hawaii limited liability company that claimed to hold both legal and equitable title to the Kingman Reef atoll, as well as its lagoon, submergent and emergent coral reefs, and surrounding waters. According to KRAI and KRAD, members of the Fullard-Leo family claimed ownership of Kingman Reef in 1922, and KRAI acquired title to Kingman Reef on November 17, 2000. Dudley and Ainsley Fullard-Leo, collectively (and sometimes together with Leslie and Ellen Fullard-Leo, both deceased, and/or the Fullard-Leo family1) were or are managers of KRAI.

Plaintiff KRAD is a Hawaii limited liability company that is managed by Peter B. Savio, the Fullard-Leo family's real estate agent and representative. On November 17, 2000, KRAD entered into a real property lease agreement with KRAI concerning the use, economic development, and protection of Kingman Reef.

In accordance with the alleged private property rights vested by the real property lease, on November 17, 2000, KRAD also entered into a real property license agreement with Kingman Reef Enterprises, L.L.C. (KRE), a Washington limited liability company. KRAD licensed KRE to operate a commercial fishing base camp at Kingman Reef and conduct commercial fishing in and around the waters of Kingman Reef for a term of thirty years.

Defendant United States is a governmental entity whose valid exercise of sovereignty over Kingman Reef is undisputed by the parties. Kingman Reef is currently classified by the United States as an unincorporated United States Territory without an Organic Act. The United States claims fee title absolute ownership to Kingman Reef, while plaintiff KRAD claims that KRAI is the holder of fee title absolute.

On March 4, 2005, and prior to filing suit in this court, KRAI brought an action to quiet title to Kingman Reef, pursuant to the Federal Quiet Title Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2409a (2012), in the United States District Court for the District of Hawaii. See Kingman Reef Atoll Investments, L.L.C. v. United States, 545 F. Supp. 2d 1103 (D. Haw. 2007), aff'd, 541 F.3d 1189 (9th Cir. 2008). The defendant filed a motion to dismiss, which the District Court denied, without prejudice, and the court permitted limited discovery on the issue of abandonment by the United States. See id. at 1109. Subsequently, defendant filed another motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction in the Hawaii case, arguing that plaintiff's claim accrued outside of the Quiet Title Act's twelve-year statute of limitations. The District Court indicated that a plaintiff's quiet title claim against the United States "is barred if it or its predecessor failed to commence the action within 12 years of the date they knew or should have known of the claim of the United States," id. at 1110 (citing United States v. Beggerly, 524 U.S. 38, 48 (1998)), and that the Quiet Title Act is "retroactive," such that "if the passage of 12 years from the date of accrual occurred before October 25, 1972, when Congress passed the QTA [Federal Quiet Title Act], the action is foreclosed." Id. at 1111 (citing Donnelly v. United States, 850 F.2d 1313, 1318 (9th Cir. 1988), cert. denied, 488 U.S. 1046 (1989); Stubbs v. United States, 620 F.2d 775 (10th Cir. 1980)). The court found that the Fullard-Leo family, plaintiff's predecessors-in-interest, "knew or should have known of the United States' claim" regarding Kingman Reef in the 1930s and, therefore, the statute of limitations had run "at the latest—by 1949 or 1950." Id. at 1112. The District Court also found no evidence that the United States had abandoned its claim to Kingman Reef, so as to create a new QTA claim for the purposes of the statute of limitations. The District Court granted defendant's motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Id. at 1116. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the District Court's decision in Kingman Reef Atoll Investments, L.L.C. v. United States, 541 F.3d 1189, 1202 (9th Cir. 2008).

When KRAI and KRAD filed the above captioned case in this court, defendant filed an earlier motion to dismiss KRAI's and KRAD's claims for lack of jurisdiction on the grounds that the claims were time-barred under the applicable six-year statute of limitations, 28 U.S.C. § 2501 (2012). After the Ninth Circuit's decision ruled in KRAI's quiet title action, Kingman Reef Atoll Investments, L.L.C. v. United States, 541 F.3d 1189, defendant renewed its motion to dismiss arguing that KRAI's action to quiet title in Kingman Reef was related to the above captioned case, the findings of the District Court and the Ninth Circuit should be given preclusive effect, and those findings supported defendant's position that plaintiff's claim accrued in 1938. This court issued an opinion on June 17, 2010 which found that KRAI's and KRAD's takings action was not precluded.

Following the decision by the United States Supreme Court in United States v. Tohono O'Odham Nation, 131 S. Ct. 1723 (2011), defendant asked to revisit the issue of jurisdiction in this court, particularly regarding the application of 28 U.S.C. § 1500 (2012) to this case in this court. This court subsequently held that it did not have jurisdiction over KRAI because KRAI had a suit pending at the United States District Court for the District of Hawaii at the time it filed suit in this court, based on substantiallythe same operative facts, meaning that Section 1500 deprived this court of jurisdiction over KRAI. KRAD, however, did not have a suit pending in another court when it filed its complaint in this court. The court, therefore, granted defendant's motion to dismiss KRAI, but denied the motion to dismiss plaintiff KRAD. See Kingman Reef Atoll Investments, L.L.C. v. United States, 103 Fed. Cl. 660, 704-05 (2012). KRAI subsequently notified the court that it did not intend to appeal the court's order dismissing KRAI.

Plaintiff KRAD filed an amended complaint on May 9, 2012. In its amended complaint, KRAD alleges that KRAI holds fee simple title to Kingman Reef, and that KRAD holds a leasehold interest in Kingman Reef from KRAI, as well as a valid real property license agreement with KRE. KRAD alleges that defendant's establishment of the Kingman Reef NWR has "resulted in the taking of plaintiff's private leasehold and licensing property rights for a public purpose without just compensation." KRAD alleges a categorical, or in the alternative, a regulatory taking, for which it seeks just compensation "in an amount equal to the fair market value of plaintiff's leasehold and licensing rights and interests," plaintiff's attorneys' costs and fees, and any additional relief the court deems proper. Thereafter, the parties fully briefed cross-motions for summary judgment. Two issues are raised by the current motions: 1) whether KRAD holds a vested property interest in Kingman Reef, and 2) whether KRAD's takings claim is time-barred by the six-year statute of limitation codified at 28 U.S.C. § 2501.


This court previously made extensive findings of fact in the above captioned case which bear some repeating here. Subsequent to the court's earlier decision in this case, defendant submitted a Statement of Uncontroverted...

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