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Skranak v. Castaneda

 

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The Ninth Circuit consolidated two appeals of unconditional use permit denials to owners of patented mining claims within Kootenai National Forest (KNF). The issue before the Ninth Circuit was whether the owners were properly denied access by the United States Forest Service (USFS). The owners brought suit under the Quiet Title Act claiming the USFS denial of unconditional use permits under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA)[1] either took or ignored their easements. The owners also challenged the permit denials under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA),[2] asserting that USFS did not follow its regulations to first determine whether the owners owned easements. With regard to the ANILCA claims, the Ninth Circuit vacated the district court’s summary judgment against both plaintiffs, instructed the district court to dismiss one plaintiff’s suit for lack of jurisdiction and to further develop the record in the second case to determine whether the owner had notice that USFS asserted exclusive ownership prior to the critical date for the statute of limitations under the Quiet Title Act. The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment against the owners on their APA claims.

In the first case, Alan and James Skranak (the Skranaks) owned a 50-acre tract[3] comprising four mining claims in the KNF. The United States granted the first patent claim in 1907 and the other three in 1912. Prior, in 1902, a six-foot wide wagon road was built to the tract, but long since has operated as the Fourth-of-July trail, closed to motorized traffic.

The Skranaks’ father, Henry, bought the Fourth-of-July tract in 1961 and has since faced numerous access issues with USFS in his efforts to work his mining claims. In 1995, Henry Skranak requested a special use permit under ANILCA to construct a 2.1 mile access road on and near the Fourth-of-July trail. After considering potential effects of construction on endangered species, water quality, and recreation, among other concerns, USFS granted permission to construct a 2.52 mile road, along a different route between June 16 and October 15 each year. USFS promised a renewable “easement” for ten years upon completion, projected to be within two to three years. Further, USFS prohibited access between April 1 and June 15 and limited access to 46 round trips between June 16 and September 15, 38 round trips between September 16 and November 15, and unlimited access in the winter, as protection for grizzlies.

In the second case, Charles Harpole owned a 40-acre tract[4] comprising two mining claims granted U.S. patents in 1903. A 1.3 mile non-system primitive, road in significant disrepair, off Forest Road 6746 (FR 6746) provided access. FR 6746, built sometime between 1900 and 1930, was open year round, but needed reconstruction after having not been maintained for 30 years.

Beginning 1983, Mr. Harpole worked the claims periodically under permits granted by USFS. All other times, USFS blocked access. In 1995, after nearly a decade had passed with inactivity, Mr. Harpole applied for a special use permit under ANILCA to reconstruct and use FR 6746 and the non-system road. USFS, after contemplating potential effects on endangered species, water quality, and recreation, among other concerns, granted the special use permit under condition that road construction would only be allowed between June 16 and October 15 each year. Further conditions included USFS’ promise to grant a renewable “easement” for ten years upon completion, projected to be within two to three years. Further, USFS limited access to 38 round trips between April 1 and June 15, 46 round trips between June 16 and September 15, 38 round trips between September 16 and November 15, and unlimited access in the winter, as protection for grizzlies.

USFS denied the Skranaks’ and Mr. Harpole’s joint administrative appeal from denial of unconditional use permits wherein the Skranaks and Mr. Harpole complained that the special use permits either took or disregarded their easements and that they should not bear the cost of improving USFS roads that would become publicly available. The Skranaks then brought a district court action to quiet title to an easement to the Fourth-of-July tract under the Quiet Title Act[5] and to challenge the conditional use permit as arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).[6] Separately, Mr. Harpole brought similar actions with respect to the Wayup Mine.

On cross motions in each action, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of USFS, holding that neither the Skranaks nor Harpole owned an easement under any theory; that had they, ANILCA extinguished it; and, regarding the APA claims, that the permit conditions were reasonable. The Skranaks and Mr. Harpole timely appealed.

After lightly admonishing the district court for failing to consider whether it possessed jurisdiction, the Ninth Circuit began by analyzing its jurisdiction prior to considering the easement claims under the Quiet Title Act. The Skranaks and Harpole filed their actions in the district court on December 28, 2000. The Quiet Title Act has a 12 year statute of limitations.[7] Thus, the claims arising under the Quiet Title Act are barred if the parties knew or should have known of the United States’ adverse claims by December 28, 1988.

The Ninth Circuit held that an expiration of the statute of limitations represented a jurisdictional bar because the Quiet Title Act was a waiver of sovereign immunity.[8] Further, the Ninth Circuit held that despite the United States having failed to move for dismissal of the Quiet Title Act claims, jurisdictional bars may not be waived by the parties and may be decided sua sponte.[9]

Relying on its decision in McFarland v. Norton,[10] the Ninth Circuit held that as the owner of an alleged servient tenement and in view of the government’s right to reasonable use of its land, the United States’ mild interference with easement use pursuant to its own property interests will fail to start the running of the statute of limitations.[11] Furthermore, the Ninth Circuit went on to hold that agencies like USFS often maintain regulatory powers over easements and other property interests, presumably including the power to require permits and condition use under those permits.[12] Thus, the panel read McFarland to hold that “regulatory or supervisory actions, as opposed to those that deny the easement’s existence” do not trigger the statute of limitations.[13]

The Ninth Circuit noted the poorly developed record in light of the district court not addressing the jurisdictional question. However, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the statute of limitations barred both claims based on evidence that USFS had converted the wagon road where Skranak held easement rights into a trail exclusively for hiking and riding use prior to the critical date.

Regarding the Skranak’s action, the Ninth Circuit noted that a mere bar to the public’s vehicular access would not necessarily be inconsistent with the Skranak’s predecessors-in-interest’s easements. Further, the panel concluded that by affirmatively converting the road to a trail, USFS barred access in a manner not temporary nor “obviously overcome by . . . permit or special permission.”[14] Thus, the Skranak’s predecessors-in-interest should have been on notice. Further, the Ninth Circuit relied a 2000 statement by Mr. Skanak in which he claimed to have been denied access for more than 39 years and a 1991 letter in which he claimed to have been denied access by “berms, Kelly ditches, arrests, and fines.”[15] Thus, the Ninth Circuit concluded the Skranak’s action was barred for want of jurisdiction and ordered the district court to dismiss.

The Ninth Circuit observed that restrictions placed upon Harpole’s land were consensually negotiated and remanded the claim to determine “if Harpole had notice that the Forest Service asserted exclusive ownership prior to 1988.”[16] Thus the court read the record to suggest USFS actions failed to rise to the level of a landowner asserting exclusive ownership when USFS merely acted pursuant to its regulatory powers. For example, Mr. Harpole began repairs to the non-system road, last used not later than 1971, in 1983. After a forest ranger called Mr. Harpole, the two agreed he had “right of access” but needed to procure a permit or file a plan of operations. In turn, the Ninth Circuit read the record to show the parties agreed USFS would close access until Mr. Harpole obtained the appropriate permits. In 1984, USFS approved permits to allow Mr. Harpole and a partner unlimited access and barring access by anyone else. In 1986, USFS informed Mr. Harpole that he needed to assert his right to access through the special use permit process, and only after a representative of Mr. Harpole’s Wayup Corporation informed USFS that same year access would not be required for the foreseeable future did USFS erect an earthen berm. The Ninth Circuit noted the record was silent as to other jurisdictional events and concluded the case should be remanded to the district court to further develop the record.[17]

The Ninth Circuit, having disposed of the Quiet Title Act claims through jurisdictional inquiries, turned to the Skranaks’ and Mr. Harpole’s challenge to USFS ANILCA access permits under APA. They claimed USFS failed to comply with its own regulation, 36 C.F.R. § 251.114(f), when USFS failed to determine whether the Skranaks or Mr. Harpole already owned easements.

As before, the Ninth Circuit began its analysis by deciding whether it possessed jurisdiction to hear the claims under the APA. The Ninth Circuit noted that where the APA waived sovereign immunity for suits seeking non-monetary relief against federal officers, the APA did not waive immunity as to claims expressly or impliedly forbidden by another statute granting consent to suit, such as the Quiet Title Act. Thus, the APA did not waive immunity for easement claims resolved in an administrative proceeding that began more than twelve years after the claims accrued. Consequently, a claimant maintains title to a disputed tract even if his claim to quiet title is time barred.[18] While being barred from judicial review of an agency’s administrative resolution to a property claim under the Quiet Title Act , the Ninth Circuit held that a claimant may assert a common law or state property claim in an administrative proceeding, and may further seek judicial review of an agency’s failure to resolve the claims. Thus, because the Skranaks and Mr. Harpole challenged a USFS failure to resolve whether they
possessed easements, the district court had jurisdiction as to the asserted APA claims.

The Skranaks and Mr. Harpole assert 36 C.F.R. § 251.114(f), which reads “the authorizing officer, prior to issuing any access authorization, must also ensure that (1)[t]he landowner has demonstrated a lack of any existing rights or routes of access available by deed or under State or common law . . .”, required USFS to consider easement claims on application for an ANILCA permit. Further, they asserted USFS refused to address whether they owned a common law easement, apparently contrary to this regulation.

The Ninth Circuit held that USFS refused to address whether the parties had easements under common law in limiting its cursory determination as to whether the parties had one or more easements to 43 U.S.C. § 932 (1938) (repealed).[19] The Ninth Circuit further held that normally it must give broad deference to USFS because it best understands its regulations. However, the record offered no USFS rebuttal to the Skranaks’ and Mr. Harpole’s administrative appeal that USFS failed to heed its regulation. Further, at oral argument, USFS conceded that 36 C.F.R. § 251.114(f) required USFS to determine easement ownership.

Thus, the Ninth Circuit noted that the USFS position potentially conflicted with Adams I, a de novo decision by the Ninth Circuit that held 1) Congress intended ANILCA permits as the exclusive means of access over USFS land and 2) to have access determined without respect to existing easements. However, the Ninth Circuit held that USFS, as the agency administering ANILCA, was not bound to interpret the statute identically to the Ninth Circuit on de novo review unless the statute’s terms are unambiguous and leave no room for agency discretion. The Ninth Circuit further held that because ANILCA had not previously been held as unambiguous, USFS was owed deference in its interpretation of the statute as long as its interpretation was based on a permissible construction of ANILCA.[20] The Ninth Circuit held that USFS’ interpretation of ANILCA as requiring a determination of state or common law easements was permissible, especially in light of Congress’ intent to increase rather than decrease access under ANILCA. The Ninth Circuit further expressed reluctance at holding unreasonable agency interpretations of statutes that uphold pre-existing common law property interests. Thus, the Ninth Circuit held that USFS must make an easement determination under 36 C.F.R. § 251.114(f) and that in failing to do so with respect to the Skranaks and Mr. Harpole, USFS violated its regulation. The Ninth Circuit therefore held the district court’s summary judgment inappropriate and ordered it reversed.

In conclusion, the Ninth Circuit vacated the district court’s grant of summary judgment under the Quiet Title Act, remanded the Skranaks’ claim with instructions to dismiss for want of jurisdiction, remanded Mr. Harpole’s claim for further proceedings, and reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment with respect to the parties’ APA claims.


[1] Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 3101-3233 (2000).

[2] Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. §§ 551-559, 701-706, 1305, 3105, 3344, 4301, 5335, 5372, 7521 (2000).

[3] The “Fourth-of-July” tract, inherited from their father who died during the litigation.

[4] The “Wayup Mine” tract.

[5] 28 U.S.C. § 2409a (2000).

[6] Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. §§ 551-559, 701-703, 1305, 3105, 3344, 4301, 5335, 5372, 7521 (2000).

[7] 28 U.S.C. § 2409a(g).

   [8] See, e.g., Block v. North Dakota, 461 U.S. 273, 292 (1983) (holding that if the statute of limitations has run on a waiver of sovereign immunity, federal courts lack jurisdiction). See also Adams v. United States (Adams I), 255 F.3d 787, 796 (9th Cir. 2001) (holding a district court grant of summary judgment under the Quiet Title Act improper because it lacked jurisdiction pursuant to the expiration of the statute of limitations).

[9] Humboldt County v. United States, 684 F.2d 1276, 1280 (9th Cir. 1982).

[10] 425 F.3d 724 (9th Cir. 2005).

[11] Id. at 727.

[12] Here, the Ninth Circuit read Clouser v. Espy, 42 F.3d 1522, 1538 (9th Cir. 1994) to hold that 16 U.S.C. § 551 confers broad power to USFS to regulate roads for the good of the forests.

[13] Skranak v. Castaneda, 425 F.3d 1213, 1217 (9th Cir. 2005) (quoting McFarland, 425 F.3d at 727).

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id. at 1218.

[17] In so doing, the Ninth Circuit relied on Berardinelli v. Castle & Cooke, Inc., 587 F.2d 37, 39 (9th Cir. 1978) (directing district court to develop the record to the extent jurisdictional questions may be answered and explaining such inquiries are different from those necessary to resolve the substantive claims).

[18] Block v. North Dakota, 461 U.S. 273, 291 (1983).

[19] USFS responded “it is not necessary to address whether there may have been some common law right of access to the private property prior to the passage of the ANILCA.” Skranak, 425 F.3d at 1219.

[20] Here, the Ninth Circuit relied on Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Res. Def. Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 843 (1984).

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