On January 8, 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit must always consider whether cases making claims against the federal government were filed on time, even if the federal government has waived that issue.
The Court's ruling came in the case of John R. Sand & Gravel v. U.S. (06-1164), which involved a takings claim and the six-year time period for filing such claims under the Tucker Act [28 USC 2501]. This case was noted in an earlier post.
In a lawsuit filed in 1994 with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, John R. Sand argued that the Environmental Protection Agency's restrictive activities on land for which it held a mining lease amounted to an unconstitutional taking of its leasehold rights. The Government initially asserted that the claims were untimely under the court of claims statute of limitations, but later effectively conceded that issue and won on the merits.
Although the Government did not raise timeliness on appeal, the Federal Circuit addressed the issue sua sponte, finding the action untimely where the claim first arose in 1994 and the lawsuit had been filed more than six years later. The Federal Circuit found that the six-year filing deadline was a jurisdictional limit, and not just a claims-processing limit that could be waived by the government. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed. Writing for the Majority, Justice Breyer noted that:
"Some statutes of limitations, however, seek not so much to protect a defendant's case-specific interest in timeliness as to achieve a broader system-related goal, such as facilitating the administration of claims, (citation omitted) limiting the scope of a governmental waiver of sovereign immunity, (citation omitted) or promoting judicial efficiency, (citation omitted). The Court has often read the time limits of these statutes as more absolute, say as requiring a court to decide a timeliness question despite a waiver, or as forbidding a court to consider whether certain equitable considerations warrant extending a limitations period. (citation omitted) As convenient shorthand, the Court has sometimes referred to the time limits in such statutes as “jurisdictional.” * * * This Court has long interpreted the court of claims limitations statute [Tucker Act] as setting forth this second, more absolute, kind of limitations period."
The full text of the Supreme Court's decision can be found at the Cornell Law School's Supreme Court collection here.