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The United States came out as a victor in a land title dispute with a Florida Corporation. F.E.B. Corp., a Florida company that sought to quiet title in Wisteria Island, an artificial landmass that was created by the Navy as a dumping grounds for seabed in order to improve shipping and aviation access. It lost a major fight in the Eleventh Circuit Court this week.
The case implicates the Quiet Title Act, possibly the only federal act that allows claimants to challenge a US claim to property. The Submerged Land Act Issue within the case is not addressed here as it is not critical to the outcome of the case.
Wisteria Island is an artificial island located off the coast of Key West, Florida in the Gulf of Mexico. It was created less out of an intent to create an island, but more out of a need to move earth beneath the sea in order to give ships more access to that area of the region. Dredgers dumped the earth onto a small plot of submerged land. Eventually, the earth piled up so high that it eventually rose above sea level. In short time, the man-made land mass spanned 39 acres and was named Wisteria Island.
In 1951, Florida sought to sell the island and issued a notice to sell. The United States objected to the sale of the land and issued a letter to the state asserting its ownership. Florida's attorney general acknowledged the United States claim but proceeded with the sale, noting an intent to sell only a quitclaim deed with no warranties of title. The island was sold again and again until it was bought by the plaintiff, FEB, in 1967. Throughout that time, the United States did not reassert its claim of the island.
FEB sued the US when renewed claims against the island were asserted. At the district level, the court concluded that claims against the US government's claim on the land had run under the Quiet Title Act. Appeal followed.
The Circuit agreed with the finding of the lower court. The Quiet Title Act, it highlighted, is the only means individuals and persons can challenge a US property claim. More important for these facts, the QTA requires that suit be brought against the US when an action "first accrues." In this sense, this accrual element is met when the plaintiff or his predecessor in interest knew or should have known that an adverse claim was being asserted.
The problem for Florida was that it was sent (and received) a letter from the US government in 1951 which gave notice of the US's asserted claim on Wisteria Island. Actual notice was proven when Florida's Attorney general sent a letter acknowledging the US claim. Thus, F.E.B. would have to accept that it had no recourse to sue. More than 12 years had passed and none of the previous predecessors in interest decided to sue to quiet title on the island. the case accrued in 1951-9152, just a few years outside of the 12 year QTA statute of limitations.
The Eleventh Circuit was quick to note that despite its conclusion that the district court was right to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, its decision did not quiet title in the United States. The title dispute continues even as we speak. So, the question remains: who owns Wisteria Island?
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