Spirit Lake Tribe v. North Dakota: the Eighth Circuit Reminds Courts and Adverse Claimants of the Specter of a Jurisdictional Statute of Limitations Lurking Within the Quiet Title Act

JurisdictionUnited States,Federal
CitationVol. 36
Publication year2022


Creighton Law Review

Vol. 36


As a sovereign nation, the United States maintains immunity from suit.(fn1) However, Congress has waived the federal government's sovereign immunity from suit in a number of areas.(fn2) Specifically, in 1972, Congress waived sovereign immunity from civil actions to quiet title to disputed lands in which the United States claims a property interest through passage of the Quiet Title Act ("QTA" or "Act"), 28 U.S.C. § 2409a (2000).(fn3) This waiver of sovereign immunity by federal statute is limited to claims that have accrued within the proscribed twelve-year statute of limitations.(fn4) Because the QTA acts as a waiver of sovereign immunity, provisions of the Act must be strictly construed.(fn5) When strictly interpreting the statute of limitations contained in the QTA, courts have found that this provision acts as a jurisdictional statute of limitations and that the QTA's statute of limitations may not be subject to exceptions.(fn6) Courts have also read the language in the QTA statute of limitations - specifically, the phrase "knew or should have known" - to impart a reasonableness test that indicates that the time-limit provision of the QTA begins to operate at the point in time when it is reasonable to believe that the claimant had notice of the federal government's adverse claim to the property.(fn7)

Recently, in Spirit Lake Tribe v. North Dakota,(fn8) the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit examined the proper disposal of a stale claim filed against the federal government pursuant to the QTA.(fn9) The Eighth Circuit held that the district court had erred in granting summary judgment to the United States after finding that the plaintiff Indian tribe's QTA claim was stale.(fn10) The Eighth Circuit in Spirit Lake reviewed legal precedent and determined that the district court should have dismissed the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction instead of granting summary judgment.(fn11) In Spirit Lake, the Spirit Lake Tribe ("Tribe") brought a QTA action in the United States District Court for the District of North Dakota to quiet title to the bed of Devil's Lake in northeastern North Dakota.(fn12) The district court granted summary judgment for the United States on the grounds that the Tribe's claim was barred by the QTA's statute of limitations.(fn13) The Eighth Circuit vacated and remanded in part the district court's decision so that the lower court could dismiss the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.(fn14) The Eighth Circuit determined that the QTA's statute of limitations acted as a jurisdictional bar, and that, the district court therefore had no authority to hear the Tribe's time-barred claim.(fn15)

This Note will first examine the facts and holding of Spirit Lake.(fn16) This Note will then discuss the relevant provisions of the QTA.(fn17) Next, this Note will review prior case law by illustrating the manner in which federal courts have interpreted the QTA.(fn18) This Note will then analyze the holding in Spirit Lake.(fn19) Specifically, this Note will show that the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit properly applied the QTA's statute of limitations provision by determining that where a plaintiff's quiet title action against the federal government had accrued over twelve years prior to the filing of the suit, the suit was time-barred.(fn20) This Note will also demonstrate that the Eighth Circuit properly reasoned that where a cause of action is based upon a waiver of sovereign immunity by the federal government, such as that provided by the QTA, the statute of limitations acts as a jurisdictional bar and not as an affirmative defense.(fn21) This Note will further show that the Eighth Circuit correctly interpreted prior case law in holding that the district court erred in granting summary judgment to the United States when it should have dismissed the action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.(fn22) This Note will conclude by demonstrating that the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit provided a framework for analyzing the QTA and also provided judges and practitioners in the federal system with a clear example of the proper method for dismissal of a stale QTA claim.(fn23)


Devils Lake is a freshwater, glacial lake enclosed within a large drainage basin in the northeastern part of North Dakota, most of which lies above the Spiritwood Aquifer.(fn24) Water levels in the lake have historically fluctuated due to changes in the climate.(fn25) In recent years, due to increased rainfall, the water level has risen and extended the lakeshores.(fn26) This geological phenomenon has improved the lake's recreational possibilities.(fn27)

The Spirit Lake Tribe ("Tribe"), formerly known as the Devils Lake Sioux Tribe, holds title to the Devils Lake Reservation ("Reservation"), also known as the Fort Totten Indian Reservation, in North Dakota.(fn28) The federal government recognized the Tribe through the Treaty of February 19, 1867 ("Treaty" or "1867 Treaty") for its loyalty to the United States during the Sioux Uprising of 1862.(fn29) Article 4 of the Treaty created the Reservation and described the Reservation's boundaries as:

[b]eginning at the most easterly point of Devil's [sic] Lake; thence along the waters of said Lake to the most westerly point of the same; thence on a direct line to the nearest point of the Cheyenne River; thence down said river to a point opposite the lower end of Aspen Island, and thence on a direct line to the place of beginning.(fn30)

Various parties have translated the phrase "thence along the waters" differently over time.(fn31) The interpretation of this phrase is critical in determining the boundary of the Reservation.(fn32) If one concludes that the northern shore is the boundary, then Devils Lake is within the Reservation property.(fn33) But if one concludes that the boundary is the southern shore, then the lakebed is outside the Reservation's holdings.(fn34)

In 1946, Congress founded the Indian Claims Commission ("ICC") to hear aboriginal tribes' claims against the federal government.(fn35) Congress gave the ICC the power to grant monetary damages but not the power to grant declaratory or injunctive relief.(fn36) In 1951, the Spirit Lake Tribe, along with other Sioux bands, filed a petition with the ICC against the United States, claiming (1) damages for the illegal taking or appropriation of reservation lands originally granted to the Tribe by Article 4 of the 1867 Treaty and (2) the right to just compensation for other treaty lands ceded to the United States under an 1872 treaty.(fn37)

In 1973 and 1975, in two separate opinions, the ICC ruled in favor of the Tribe on both counts.(fn38) Neither opinion explicitly addressed title to the lakebed.(fn39) However, in 1976, while the federal government appealed the ICC's 1975 decision, the United States Department of the Interior issued an opinion regarding the Reservation boundary at the request of North Dakota's attorney general.(fn40) The Memorandum, written by an Associate Solicitor for Indian Affairs, declared Devils Lake was "not adjacent to" but "wholly within" the Reservation's boundaries and was held in trust by the United States for the benefit of the Tribe.(fn41) This Memorandum was communicated to and discussed by the Tribe by early 1977, while the Sioux bands settled on the remainder of their claims under appeal with the federal government.(fn42) Meanwhile, on July 7, 1971, the federal government had acquired over 62,000 acres of Devils Lake via quitclaim deed from the State of North Dakota to aid in the Garrison Diversion Project, which was a federal project implemented to bring water from the Missouri River to central and eastern North Dakota to stock municipal water supplies and irrigate dry lands.(fn43)

Then, on June 9, 1986, the Spirit Lake Tribe brought an action in the United States District Court for the District of North Dakota to quiet title to the lakebed.(fn44) Included as defendants in the Tribe's complaint were the State of North Dakota, the Garrison Conservancy District, the United States, and private individuals claiming property adjacent to Devils Lake.(fn45) The Tribe asserted its claim against the federal government under the Quiet Title Act ("QTA" or "Act").(fn46) Specifically, the Tribe asserted that the federal government held title to the lakebed in trust for the members of the Tribe, that the lake was part of the Reservation, and that the Tribe was entitled to possession of the lake.(fn47)

The United States filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that the Tribe had previously litigated and settled the claim to Devils Lake in front of the ICC.(fn48) The federal district court did not find any genuine issues of material fact in the case and granted the federal government's motion for summary judgment.(fn49) Upon reviewing the ICC proceedings, the court stated that the ICC's opinions discussing the Indians' claims showed that the ICC understood the Reservation to lie south of the lake.(fn50) Furthermore, the court stated that the maps used by the parties to identify the tracts at issue in the ICC proceedings...

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