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Quiet Riot: Landowner Loses Claim Due to Statute of Limitations

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reminds us today that the Quiet Title Act statute of limitations favors the government. Before you file a Quiet Title claim, you might want to double check when your client — or her predecessor in interest — reasonably should have known of the government’s right in a disputed property.

Anne George lives next to the Gila National Forest in Silver City, New Mexico. She wants to fence her property to corral her horse. The Forest Service has a road running through her land, so George offered to leave a gate across the road unlocked; the Service rejected the idea. The Service, instead, suggested that George pen her horse with a fence running alongside its road; George rejected this alternative.

Monday, the Tenth Circuit ruled in favor of the Forest Service, finding that whatever legal entitlement George might have had to build a fence across the Forest Service's road lapsed years ago due to the statute of limitations.

When George acquired her property in 2005, it was subject to a federal easement, known as Shrine Mine Road. (The easement was established in a land deal between the Forest Service and a previous property owner in 1979.)

Shrine Mine Road has long been used by the public and Forest Service to enter and exit Gila National Forest. Forest Service regulations promulgated in 1977 prohibit fencing or otherwise obstructing Forest Service lands, roads, or trails. George, however, has built a fence around her property three times. The Forest Service has removed that fence and cited George ... three times.

In 2009, George sued the government under the Quiet Title Act (QTA), which waives the government's sovereign immunity and permits claims "to adjudicate a disputed title to real property in which the United States claims an interest." At summary judgment, the district court dismissed George's suit as time-barred -- and Tenth Circuit ruled it was right to do so.

While the Act waives the government's immunity and gives plaintiffs 12 years to bring suit, the trigger for starting that 12-year clock favors the government: The Quiet Title Act's limitations period begins running as soon as "the plaintiff or his predecessor in interest knew or should have known of the claim of the United States."

Here, the courts ruled that the 12-year clock was triggered when George's predecessor in interest should have known about the government's right to a fence-free road in 1979.

The Quiet Title Act's limitations clock starts running as soon as the federal government publishes a property claim in the Federal Register and a QTA plaintiff or her predecessor in interest is "subject to or affected by' it; for George's property, that occurred in 1979. Regardless of the merits of her Quiet Title claim, George loses based on the statute of limitations.

Don't find yourself litigating an equally-lost cause. Check the Federal Register to determine when the government published a property claim for your client's land, and determine whether your client's claim is time-barred before you file.

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