An age-old legal maxim—going back to Blackstone—states, “where there is a right, there must be a remedy.” Not so, says the federal government, when the government asserts an interest in your private property.
The Supreme Court will soon hear argument in Wilkins v. United States, a dispute between private landowners in Montana and the federal government over the government’s use of its easement across their land.
Neighbors Larry (Wil) Wilkins and Jane Stanton live along a one-mile-long dirt road called Robbins Gulch Road in western Montana in the northern Rocky Mountains. The road provides access between a public highway and an entrance to Bitterroot National Forest, a 1.6-million-acre forest in which the government allows timber harvesting and public recreation, including hunting, fishing, camping, and hiking along 1,600 miles of trails. Wilkins, a military veteran and outdoorsman, purchased his property near the forest in 2004 for its scenic beauty and tranquility.
Sixty years ago, the prior owners of the land on which Wilkins and Stanton now live granted the federal government an easement across their land to provide government agents and government contractors (mainly timber harvesters) access between the forest and the highway. The deeds by which the government obtained its easement state that the road was to be “improved, used, operated, patrolled, and maintained and known as the Robbins Gulch road, Project Number 446.” A letter accompanying the deeds further provided that the “[p]urpose of the road” was for “timber harvest.” Wilkins and Stanton state that for years, until 2006, the government complied with the terms of the deeds and the scope of its easement, and the government’s use of the road did not interfere with their property.
But in 2006, the government posted a sign along the road stating, “PUBLIC ACCESS THRU PRIVATE LANDS,” which effectively invited the general public to use the government’s easement to more conveniently access the national forest. According to Wilkins, the resulting vehicle traffic brought disturbing noise and led to vandalism, trespassing, property theft, and traffic-related soil erosion (since the road was unpaved). Wilkins’ cat was shot by a hunter who had used the road, and another driver purposely ran over two of his neighbor’s dogs. Faced with the loss of the quiet enjoyment of their property, some of Wilkins’ neighbors moved away.
In 2007, a draft of the Forest Service’s internal traffic study of Bitterroot National Forest recommended that Robbins Gulch Road be closed to public motorized access. But the Forest Service reversed course when the study was finalized in 2018. Wilkins repeatedly asked the Forest Service to address the problems associated with public use of the road, but the Forest Service maintained that its easement allowed the government to grant public access to the road.
Wilkins then filed a claim against the government in district court under the Quiet Title Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2409a, contending that the government exceeded the scope of the easement by opening the road to the public. The district court dismissed the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction for failure to file his claim prior to the expiration of the Act’s twelve-year statute of limitations. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal, and Wilkins appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Act’s statute-of-limitations provision is not a jurisdictional bar preventing him from bringing his claim against the government, but is instead a “claim-processing rule” that places the burden of proving the statute of limitations on the moving party and requires the court to weigh competing evidence regarding waiver of the statute of limitations.
Certainly, a twelve-year statute of limitations is relatively lengthy. But under the Quiet Title Act’s statute-of-limitations provision, a landowner’s claim accrues when the landowner or the landowner’s predecessor-in-interest knew or should have known of the government’s adverse interest in the property. In determining when Wilkins’ claim accrued, the district court focused on a set of Forest Service historic maps from the 1960s and 70s as evidence that a reasonable person should have been aware that the United States’ interest in the roadway easement included the government permitting public use of the road because of how the maps were labeled. The district court held, “[a]lthough the Government does not pin down precisely when Plaintiffs’ claims expired, the Government offers enough evidence for the Court to conclude that the statute of limitations ran before August 23, 2006. . . .”
Thus, the court held, because the government could point to decades-old evidence of the Forest Service’s assertion of the extent of the government’s interest in the easement across Wilkins’ property—even without establishing that notice was provided to the affected landowners—the present-day landowners cannot challenge the government’s use of the easement.
The federal government’s litigation strategy in Wilkins attempts to deny landowners their remedy under the Quiet Title Act. The Supreme Court should carefully consider the potential ramifications for private property rights in deciding whether the Quiet Title Act’s statute of limitations is jurisdictional.
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