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Saving America's Mustangs v. Bureau of Land Management

United States District Court, D. Nevada

November 20, 2017



          ROBERT C. JONES United States District Judge.

         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 patented certain land. Pending before the Court is a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and cross-motions for summary judgment.


         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 issued a land patent (“the Patent”) to Plaintiff's predecessor-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 sued BLM in this Court under the Declaratory Judgment and Quiet Title Acts. BLM moved to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The Court granted the motion in part, dismissing the duplicative declaratory judgment claim but refusing to dismiss the quiet title claim. BLM has again moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, and the parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment on the merits.


         A court must grant summary judgment when “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Material facts are those which may affect the outcome of the case. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute as to a material fact is genuine if there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. See Id. A principal purpose of summary judgment is “to isolate and dispose of factually unsupported claims.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986).

         In determining summary judgment, a court uses a burden-shifting scheme. The moving party must first satisfy its initial burden. “When the party moving for summary judgment would bear the burden of proof at trial, it must come forward with evidence which would entitle it to a directed verdict if the evidence went uncontroverted at trial.” C.A.R. Transp. Brokerage Co. v. Darden Rests., Inc., 213 F.3d 474, 480 (9th Cir. 2000) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). In contrast, when the nonmoving party bears the burden of proving the claim or defense, the moving party can meet its burden in two ways: (1) by presenting evidence to negate an essential element of the nonmoving party's case; or (2) by demonstrating that the nonmoving party failed to make a showing sufficient to establish an element essential to that party's case on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. See Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 323-24.

         If the moving party fails to meet its initial burden, summary judgment must be denied and the court need not consider the nonmoving party's evidence. See Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144 (1970). If the moving party meets its initial burden, the burden then shifts to the opposing party to establish a genuine issue of material fact. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). To establish the existence of a factual dispute, the opposing party need not establish a material issue of fact conclusively in its favor. It is sufficient that “the claimed factual dispute be shown to require a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial.” T.W. Elec. Serv., Inc. v. Pac. Elec. Contractors Ass'n, 809 F.2d 626, 631 (9th Cir. 1987). In other words, the nonmoving party cannot avoid summary judgment by relying solely on conclusory allegations unsupported by facts. See Taylor v. List, 880 F.2d 1040, 1045 (9th Cir. 1989). Instead, the opposition must go beyond the assertions and allegations of the pleadings and set forth specific facts by producing competent evidence that shows a genuine issue for trial. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e); Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324.

         At the summary judgment stage, a court's function is not to weigh the evidence and determine the truth, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. The evidence of the nonmovant is “to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Id. at 255. But if the evidence of the nonmoving party is merely colorable or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted. See Id. at 249-50. Notably, facts are only viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party where there is a genuine dispute about those facts. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007). That is, even if the underlying claim contains a reasonableness test, where a party's evidence is so clearly contradicted by the record as a whole that no reasonable jury could believe it, “a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment.” Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         The Court previously denied a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, ruling that there was a dispute to title over the Road between SAM and BLM, and that the present dispute had arisen within twelve years of SAM filing the Complaint. See Leisnoi, Inc. v. United States, 267 F.3d 1019, 1024-25 (9th Cir. 2001). BLM again asks the Court to dismiss, arguing that its previous motion was directed to the face of the Complaint but that its current motion is a factual attack. See Thornhill Publ'g Co., Inc. v. Gen. Tel. & Elec. Corp., 594 F.2d 730, 733 (9th Cir. 1979). The Court previously found that SAM had provided evidence sufficient to show jurisdiction, i.e., that the statute of limitations had not run on the claim. (See Sorenson Decl. ¶¶ 4-7, ECF No. 10-2; Pickens Decl. ¶¶ 3, 6, 13, ECF No. 10-3). BLM now adduces evidence that SAM's predecessor-in-interest, Von Sorensen, was aware of public use of the road well prior to twelve years before the present lawsuit was filed. (Sorenson Dep. 37, ECF No. 27-2) (testifying that members of the public used the Road between 1977 and 1984)). He also testified that vehicles would occasionally use the Road from prior to the Patent being issued in 1967 until he and his wife sold the land in 2010, and that he and his wife never questioned public use of the road or attempted to stop anyone from using it. (Id. 39-43). This evidence tends to show that public use of the Road was long known to SAM's predecessors.

         SAM adduces no contrary evidence. It argues that under the law of the case, the Court should ignore BLM's evidence because the Court already ruled that SAM had provided evidence sufficient to show jurisdiction. The law of the case doctrine does not bind a court from reconsidering its own rulings. Anyway, although the Court previously cited to SAM's evidence, BLM had not yet attempted to make a factual attack against jurisdiction. It has done so now. When the testimony of Von Sorenson submitted by BLM is considered against the testimony of Von Sorenson previously submitted by SAM, there remains no genuine issue of material fact. The Court previously cited to SAM's evidence that Sorenson claimed never to have been explicitly told by the United States that the public could use the Road. But BLM's evidence makes it clear he was ...

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