March 25, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Express or Implicit Dispute of Title Necessary to Trigger Quiet Title Act’s “Disputed Title” Requirement

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Kane County, Utah v. United States on Tuesday, December 2, 2014.

In April 2008, Kane County, Utah brought an action under the Quiet Title Act (QTA), 28 U.S.C. § 2409a, to quiet title to five roads in southern Utah. It later amended its complaint to cover 15 roads or road segments. The county asserted the rights-of-way pursuant to R.S. 2477, which reserved a right-of-way for construction of highways over public lands not reserved for public uses. R.S. 2477 was repealed by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1977 (FLPMA)  but existing rights-of-way were preserved. The State of Utah intervened in the county’s action as co-plaintiff. After a 9-day bench trial, the district court issued two orders. In the first order, the district court held that it had subject matter jurisdiction under the QTA as to all 15 roads at issue. The second order made findings of fact and addressed the merits, finding that Kane County and Utah had proven R.S. 2477 rights-of-way on 12 of the 15 roads and setting proper widths for the rights-of-way. Both orders were challenged on appeal.

Kane County and Utah argued that the district court erred by finding that Public Water Reserve (PWR) 107 reserved two parcels of land from the operation of R.S. 2477. They also challenged the district court’s requirement of proof by clear and convincing evidence of the R.S. 2477 rights-of-way. The United States also appealed, claiming that the district court lacked jurisdiction over the county’s claims regarding several roads because of the absence of a disputed title to real property. The United States also contended the district court erred in setting widths for the rights-of-way on three of the roads.

The Tenth Circuit first examined the subject matter jurisdiction claims of the United States and amici. For a court to have jurisdiction over a QTA claim, the plaintiff must show that (1) the United States “claims an interest” in the property at issue, and (2) title to the property is “disputed.” The Tenth Circuit, as a matter of first impression, evaluated what requirements satisfy the QTA’s “disputed title” requirement. The Tenth Circuit rejected the Ninth Circuit’s “cloud on title” standard and instead held that, to satisfy the QTA’s “disputed title” element, the plaintiff must show that the United States has either expressly disputed title or taken action that implicitly disputes it. Actions that produce ambiguity are not enough to satisfy the disputed title element.

Turning its attention to the roads at issue, the Tenth Circuit found that the district court did not have jurisdiction over the Sand Dunes Road and the Hancock Road. These roads were omitted from a BLM map, but later the map was amended to show the roads. The district court ruled this created an ambiguity as to the legal status of the roads, but the Tenth Circuit found the ambiguity was insufficient to satisfy the QTA’s disputed title element and therefore the district court lacked jurisdiction. The Tenth Circuit also found the district court lacked jurisdiction as to the four cave roads. The district court’s treatment of the United States’ denial of allegations as sufficient to establish jurisdiction was in error.

Amici had argued the plaintiffs lacked R.S. 2477 jurisdiction over another road, the North Swag Road, because the QTA’s limitations period had expired. The Tenth Circuit found that the limitations period was not triggered because no adverse action had occurred.

The Tenth Circuit then turned its attention to the district court’s conclusion that PWR 107 had served to “reserve” two parcels of land across which Swallow Park Road runs from operation of R.S. 2477. The Tenth Circuit analyzed PWR 107, finding that it was intended to provide public access to certain water springs, and noted that it would be “nonsensical” to hold that the provision of public access to the springs expressly excluded the construction of roadways under R.S. 2477 on which the public could access the water springs. The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s determination that plaintiffs could not establish a right-of-way on the part of Swallow Park Road running through the two reserved parcels of land.

Finally, the United States argued that the district court erred by not designating right-of-way widths on three roadways on the uses established in 1977, and by improperly allowing room for improvements on the roadways. The Tenth Circuit agreed on both points. The district court was required to inquire as to the reasonable and necessary uses of the road, and expansions are only allowable when reasonable and necessary in light of pre-1977 uses of the roadways. Similarly, the district court exceeded its authority by allowing room for improvements. The Tenth Circuit likened this to putting the cart before the horse, finding instead that if the roadways needed improvements the land management agency must be consulted and allowed an opportunity to determine if the improvements are reasonable and necessary.

The judgment of the district court was affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for further proceedings.

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