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Beggerly v. United States

ELR Citation: 28 ELR 20161
Nos. 95-60625, 114 F.3d 484/(5th Cir., 07/28/1997)

The court holds that a consent judgment under which the United States acquired title to Horn Island in the Gulf of Mexico is null and void. Plaintiff-appellants had contracted to sell a portion of the island to the United States, which sought it as part of a proposed national park. The United States, however, canceled the contract, contending that it had never issued a land patent for the property and was therefore the title owner. The government then brought a quiet title action, representing that no evidence existed that the island had ever been privately owned. Plaintiff-appellants appealed a judgment against them in their action to set aside the consent judgment. The court first holds that governmental consent is not required to bring an independent action in the same court as the original action. An independent action filed in the same court that rendered the original judgment is a continuation of the original action for purposes of subject matter jurisdiction. To allow the government to use sovereign immunity as a shield where it previously has invoked the court's jurisdiction and prevailed in an action based on its misrepresentations, negligence, or mistake would do unacceptable violence to our basic notions of justice.

The court next holds that the English translation of a 1781 Spanish land grant in which the Governor General of Spanish Louisiana conveyed Horn Island to Catarina Boudreau is the best evidence of the original grant and is admissible to prove its existence. The court also holds that the property at issue remained privately owned after the Louisiana Purchase and did not enter the public domain of the United States until the misrepresentation-based consent judgment. The court next sets aside the consent judgment as null and void. The government possessed a document that was vital to the plaintiff-appellants' claim of title to the land they had acquired on Horn Island. Plaintiff-appellants' inability to prove their title was directly caused by the government's failure to produce the grant and by its misrepresentation that no private disposal had ever been made. Equity permits the court to correct injustice in extraordinary and unusual circumstances such as those presented here.

The court also holds that the validity of plaintiff-appellants' title is a legal certainty. The record reflects that they legally acquired a part of Horn Island in a tax sale. In addition, the United States has no legitimate claim to the land. The court further holds that the limitations period of the Quiet Title Act was tolled from the time plaintiff-appellants began searching for evidence of a private disposal during the original quiet action until they discovered the Boudreau Grant and, thus, that their action manifestly was filed within the 12-year limitations period.

A dissenting judge would hold that the court does not have jurisdiction to provide relief in this case because the government has not waived its sovereign immunity to suit. The United States is immune from suit without its consent, and the court is to construe waivers of sovereign immunity strictly in favor of the sovereign. Regardless of the equities of any individual case, governmental consent is always required as a prerequisite to federal jurisdiction.

Counsel for Plaintiffs
Ernest G. Taylor Jr.
Watkins, Ludlam & Stennis
633 N. State St., Jackson MS 39205
(601) 949-4900

Counsel for Defendant
William B. Lazarus
Environment and Natural Resources Division
U.S. Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 514-2000

Before Garza and Stewart, JJ.