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Wyo-Ben Inc. v. Haaland.

No. 20-8065. 3/20/2023. D.Wyo. Judge Holmes. Mineral Patent Application Moratorium—Moratorium Exemption—Administrative Procedure Act § 706(1)—Timeliness of Claim—28 USC § 2401(a) Statute of Limitations—Continuing Violation Doctrine—Repeated Violations Doctrine.

March 20, 2023

In 1993, Wyo-Ben Inc. filed a mineral patent application (application) with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Congress enacted a moratorium on processing mineral patent applications on September 30, 1994 (1995 Act), while the application was pending. Congress also enacted an exemption to the moratorium providing that if a patent application was pending by September 30, 1994, and otherwise complied with certain conditions, the patent application was not subject to the moratorium, and the secretary of the Department of the Interior (secretary) was required to process the application. On October 3, 1994, BLM—not the secretary—determined that Wyo-Ben’s application did not qualify for the exemption. Congress thereafter reenacted the 1995 Act annually through 2019. In 2019, Wyo-Ben filed a complaint against the secretary and the BLM asserting a claim under Administrative Procedure Act (APA) § 706(1), which authorizes courts to “compel agency action unlawfully withheld or unreasonably delayed.” Wyo-Ben alleged that the secretary “unlawfully withheld” and “unreasonably delayed” agency action by failing to review its pending application to determine whether it is exempt from the moratorium. The district court found that Wyo-Ben’s claim was barred by 28 USC § 2401(a), the six-year statute of limitations applicable to claims against the United States, reasoning that Wyo-Ben’s claim first accrued when the BLM determined that Wyo-Ben’s application is not exempt, on October 3, 1994, and that the limitations period expired on October 3, 2000. In finding that Wyo-Ben’s claim was time-barred, the district court concluded that neither the continuing violation doctrine nor the repeated violations doctrine applied to Wyo-Ben’s claim. The district court entered final judgment dismissing Wyo-Ben’s complaint.

On appeal, Wyo-Ben contended that the district court erroneously dismissed its complaint as untimely because it misconstrued Wyo-Ben’s claim by characterizing the allegedly unlawful conduct as BLM’s decision that Wyo-Ben’s application falls within the moratorium. Rather, Wyo-Ben asserted that its claim challenges the secretary’s inaction on its application, which is allegedly unlawful given the 1995 Act and subsequent statutory reiterations through 2019. Wyo-Ben argued that the continuing violation and repeated violations doctrines apply to its claim because the secretary allegedly failed to review its application each year from 1995 through 2019. The Tenth Circuit determined that Wyo-Ben waived its continuing violation doctrine argument. However, the repeated violations doctrine—which divides a single, time-barred cause of action into several separate claims, at least one of which accrues within the limitations period before suit—fits Wyo-Ben’s alleged circumstances because the complaint clearly concerns the secretary’s inaction, not BLM’s 1994 determination. Accordingly, the district court misconstrued Wyo-Ben’s claim. Applying the repeated violations doctrine to Wyo-Ben’s claim, once the secretary had allegedly withheld action unlawfully or delayed unreasonably in reviewing Wyo-Ben’s application, each time the secretary continued thereafter to not perform its duty constituted a discrete violation. Thus, the district court erred in holding that Wyo-Ben’s claim was untimely.

Wyo-Ben also argued that the district court erred by not compelling the secretary to carry out her duty under the 2019 Act by reviewing its application. However, the Tenth Circuit could not address this argument because outstanding factual disputes and issues remain for the district court’s resolution.

The dismissal of Wyo-Ben’s complaint as untimely was reversed and the case was remanded, with instructions, for further proceedings.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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