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Saving America's Mustangs v. Bureau of Land Management

United States District Court, D. Nevada

April 13, 2017




         This action arises out of a dispute over whether the United States reserved title to a segment of road or only an easement for its use when it deeded certain land to Plaintiff's predecessor-in-interest. Pending before the Court is a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.


         Plaintiff Saving America's Mustangs (“SAM”) owns and operates a wild horse sanctuary near Elko, Nevada. (Compl. ¶ 2, ECF No. 1). On or about June 2, 1967, the United States had issued a land patent (“the Patent”) to Plaintiff's predecessors-in-interest. (Id. ¶ 4). The Patent included a reservation (“the Reservation”) for use and maintenance of a five-mile road (“the Road”) that traverses Plaintiff's property in a north-south direction. (See Id. ¶¶ 4-5). The Reservation was for use by the United States and its agents and employees, not for use by the public. (Id. ¶¶ 7-10). Members of the public have since 2013 been using roads on SAM's property and otherwise trespassing. (Id. ¶ 12). SAM therefore installed access gates on the Road and gave the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) keys to the gates. (Id. ¶¶ 13-14). BLM, however, has asserted that the public has the right to use the Road and that SAM's installation of gates on the Road violates the Reservation. (Id. ¶ 14).

         SAM has sued BLM in this Court under the Declaratory Judgment Act and to quiet title to the Road. BLM has moved to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.


         Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, possessing only those powers granted by the Constitution and statute. See United States v. Marks, 530 F.3d 799, 810 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994)). The party asserting federal jurisdiction bears the burden of overcoming the presumption against it. Kokkonen, 511 U.S. at 377. A party may move to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under the federal rules. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). Additionally, a court may raise the question of subject matter jurisdiction sua sponte at any time during an action. United States v. Moreno- Morillo, 334 F.3d 819, 830 (9th Cir. 2003). Regardless of who raises the issue, “when a federal court concludes that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, the court must dismiss the complaint in its entirety.” Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 514 (2006) (citing 16 J. Moore et al., Moore's Federal Practice § 106.66[1], pp. 106-88 to 106-89 (3d ed. 2005)).

         “Absent a waiver, sovereign immunity shields the Federal Government and its agencies from suit.” FDIC v. Meyer, 510 U.S. 471, 475 (1994). “Sovereign immunity is jurisdictional in nature.” Id. Waivers of sovereign immunity are construed narrowly. See Lane v. Pena, 518 U.S. 187, 192 (1996); Lehman v. Nakshian, 453 U.S. 156, 160-61 (1981).

         III. ANALYSIS

         The case turns upon whether the United States excepted the Road from the grant of fee simple title altogether or only reserved an easement limited to its own use (and not for use by the general public). The Patent conveys certain land, “EXCEPTING AND RESERVING TO THE UNITED STATES” three rights. (See Patent 1-2, ECF No. 1-1). That language indicates that the rights listed thereafter are variously “except[ions]” to the conveyance itself or “reserv[ations]” of rights in the land conveyed. The first right listed is “[a] right-of-way thereon for ditches and canals . . . .” (Id. 1). The second right listed is “[a]ll the mineral deposits in the lands . . . .” (Id. 2). The third right listed is “[t]hat road and all appurtenances thereto . . . and the right of the United States, its agents or employees, to maintain, operate, repair, or improve the same so long as needed or used for or by the United States.” (Id.). That might be read as an exception to the conveyance as to the Road itself or as reservation of an easement over the Road. At least one other court has approved the Interior Board of Land Appeals' construction of a patent that used the same “excepting and reserving” language where a listed right was, as here, not qualified with “subject to” or similar language typical to reservations of easements. See Bolack Minerals Co. v. Norton, 370 F.Supp.2d 161, 174-75 (D.D.C. 2005) (citing 43 U.S.C. § 1768; 43 C.F.R. § 2803.5(b)). The Court is not currently tasked with interpreting the Patent but with determining the Court's jurisdiction in light of the United States' limited waiver of sovereign immunity under the Quiet Title Act.

         The United States has waived its sovereign immunity as to quiet title-type actions. See 28 U.S.C. § 2409a(a) (“The United States may be named as a party defendant in a civil action under this section to adjudicate a disputed title to real property in which the United States claims an interest, other than a security interest or water rights.”).

         First, BLM argues that because SAM seeks only to limit the scope of a purported easement as opposed to declaring a disputed title, the action is not contemplated under § 2409a(a). But there is in fact a dispute over title to the Road. SAM alleges that the Patent reserved for the United States only a “road easement, ” not title to the Road (Compl. ¶ 4). Elsewhere in its own motion, BLM not only acknowledges but emphasizes that the core of the present dispute is over title to the Road:

SAM characterizes the “Reservation” as having “created a road easement for the benefit of the United States”-however, that characterization is belied by the plain terms of the reservation language in the 1967 patent. . . . Rather, the 1967 patent conveyed title to the larger property described in the patent and then reserved from that title conveyance the roadway described in the reservation. Quite plainly, the United States did not reserve an easement (or right-of-way) for use of the described roadway but rather reserved title to the described roadway (and, according to the patent language, “all appurtenances thereto”) when it issued the 1967 patent . . . .

(Mot. Dismiss 3:8-20, ECF No. 5 (citation omitted)). Because there is a dispute over title between SAM and BLM, there is jurisdiction under § 2409a(a). See Leisnoi, Inc. v. UnitedStates ...

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