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Roosevelt Irrigation District v. United States

United States District Court, D. Arizona

June 10, 2019

Roosevelt Irrigation District, Plaintiff,
v.
United States of America, Defendant.
v.
Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District, et al., Intervenor Defendants.

          ORDER

          HONORABLE JOHN J. TUCHI UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         At issue is Defendant United States' Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 198, MTD), to which Plaintiff Roosevelt Irrigation District (“RID”) filed a Response (Doc. 232, Resp.) and the United States filed a Reply (Doc. 243, Reply). In this Order, the Court will also address Intervenor Defendants Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District (“the District”) and Salt River Valley Water Users' Association's (“the Association”) (collectively “SRP”)[1] Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 196), to which Plaintiff Roosevelt Irrigation District (“RID”) filed a Response (Doc. 234) and SRP filed a Reply (Doc. 239). Finally, this Order will address Plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. 211), to which SRP and the United States filed Responses (Docs. 229, Doc. 231) and Plaintiff filed Replies (Docs. 241, 242).

         The Court finds these matters appropriate for resolution without oral argument. See LRCiv 7.2(f). For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant the United States' Motion to Dismiss RID's quiet title action.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Court has detailed the history of this dispute in several prior Orders, including its September 30, 2017 Order (Doc. 293, Sept. 30, 2017 Order) in the parallel action where Plaintiff seeks a declaratory judgment of its rights to the disputed property. Roosevelt Irrigation Dist. v. United States, 15-CV-00448-PHX-JJT. In the -448 matter, both parties previously moved for summary judgment and the Court granted in part and denied in part each Motion, leaving several elements of the dispute to be determined upon resolution of the instant -439 matter.

         In this case, Plaintiff filed its Complaint on March 11, 2015, after its related state court action was dismissed. (Doc. 1, Compl.) The state court suggested a federal quiet title action to determine the respective rights of Plaintiff and the United States in 26 well sites, pumping equipment, and pump laterals that are at the heart of each filing in this multifaceted dispute. SRP intervened as a Defendant later in 2015 and has been party to every relevant step of this litigation. (Doc. 29.)

         At its core, Plaintiff's argument is that, pursuant to a 1921 contract with SRP, it has the right to continue using the 26 well sites to pump groundwater from lands owned by SRP and used in conjunction with the United States as the Salt River Project. Under the 1921 contract, RID's predecessors and SRP agreed that RID would “operate said pumps, wells, . . . and other works constructed and installed by it, for the term of ninety-nine (99) years.” (Sept. 30, 2017 Order at 7.) The contract and its subsequent amendment were approved by the Secretary of the Interior, as required by federal Reclamation law. (Id.) Now, at the urging of the Superior Court and in response to the United States' alleged interest, RID seeks quiet title to the pumping plants.[2] (Compl.) The United States moves to dismiss based on the expiration of the statute of limitations for a quiet title action against the federal government. (MTD).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         “A motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) may attack either the allegations of the complaint as insufficient to confer upon the court subject matter jurisdiction, or the existence of subject matter jurisdiction in fact.” Renteria v. United States, 452 F.Supp.2d 910, 919 (D. Ariz. 2006) (citing Thornhill Publ'g Co. v. Gen. Tel. & Elecs. Corp., 594 F.2d 730, 733 (9th Cir. 1979)).[3] “Where the jurisdictional issue is separable from the merits of the case, the [court] may consider the evidence presented with respect to the jurisdictional issue and rule on that issue, resolving factual disputes if necessary.” Thornhill, 594 F.2d at 733; see also Autery v. United States, 424 F.3d 944, 956 (9th Cir. 2005) (“With a 12(b)(1) motion, a court may weigh the evidence to determine whether it has jurisdiction.”). The burden of proof is on the party asserting jurisdiction to show that the court has subject matter jurisdiction. See Indus. Tectonics, Inc. v. Aero Alloy, 912 F.2d 1090, 1092 (9th Cir. 1990).

         “[B]ecause it involves a court's power to hear a case, ” subject matter jurisdiction “can never be forfeited or waived.” United States v. Cotton, 535 U.S. 625, 630 (2002). Courts “have an independent obligation to determine whether subject-matter jurisdiction exists, even in the absence of a challenge from any party.” Arbaugh v. Y&H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 513-14 (2006).

         III. ANALYSIS

         The Quiet Title Act (“the Act”) provides that “[t]he United States may be named as a party defendant in a civil action . . . to adjudicate a disputed title to real property in which the United States claims an interest, other than a security interest or water rights.” 28 U.S.C. § 2409a(a). Pursuant to the Act, “the United States, subject to certain exceptions, has waived its sovereign immunity and has permitted plaintiffs to name it as a party defendant.” Block v. North Dakota, 461 U.S. 273, 275-76 (1983). Waivers of sovereign immunity are to be construed narrowly. United States v. Nordic Village Inc., 503 U.S. 30, 34 (1992) (noting that while the Court has occasionally identified waivers to sovereign immunity, those instances “do not, however, eradicate the traditional principle that the Government's consent to be sued must be construed strictly in favor of the sovereign”) (internal citations omitted).

         The statute of limitations for a claim under the Act is twelve years from accrual. 28 U.S.C. § 2409a(g). A claim accrues “on the date the plaintiff or his predecessor in interest knew or should have known of the claim of the United States.” Id. The statute of limitations is retroactive; that is, even if twelve years passed from the accrual date before Congress passed the Act on October 25, 1972, the action is time barred. Donnelly v. United States, 850 F.2d 1313, 1318 (9th Cir. 1988). Because it could potentially expand the United States' limited waiver of sovereign immunity, courts strictly construe the statute of limitations. See Block, 461 U.S. at 287 (“the limitations provision constitutes a condition on the waiver of sovereign immunity . . . we must be careful not to interpret it in a manner that would extend the waiver beyond that which Congress intended”) (internal citation omitted).

         Moreover, the statute of limitations creates a jurisdictional bar because “[i]f the statute of limitations has run on a waiver of sovereign immunity, federal courts lack jurisdiction.” Skranak v. Castenada, 425 F.3d 1213, 1216 (9th Cir. 2005). Thus, “[a]lthough ordinarily the defendant bears the burden of proving an affirmative statute of limitations defense, here the statute of limitations is jurisdictional, and [w]hen subject matter jurisdiction is challenged under Federal Rule of Procedure 12(b)(1), the plaintiff has the burden of proving jurisdiction in ...


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