Supreme Court of the United States
Decided April 1, 1985
Justice O’Connor, Concurring
|Topic: Due Process*||Court vote: 6–3|
|Note: No other Justices joined this opinion.|
|Citation: 471 U.S. 84||Docket: 83–1394||Audio: Listen to this case's oral arguments at Oyez|
* As categorized by the Washington University Law Supreme Court Database
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JUSTICE O'CONNOR, concurring.
I agree that the District Court erred in holding that § 314(c) of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA), 43 U.S.C. § 1744(c), violates due process by creating an "irrebuttable presumption" of abandonment. Whatever the force of Vlandis v. Kline, 412 U. S. 441 (1973), beyond the facts underlying that case, I believe that § 314(c) comports with due process under the analysis of our later decision in Weinberger v. Salfi, 422 U. S. 749 (1975). Because I also believe that the statute does not otherwise violate the Fifth Amendment, and that the District Court erred in its alternative holding that substantial compliance satisfies the filing requirements of § 314 and corresponding regulations, I agree that the judgment below must be reversed. Nonetheless, I share many of the concerns expressed in the dissenting opinions of JUSTICE POWELL and JUSTICE STEVENS. If the facts are as alleged by appellees, allowing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to extinguish active mining claims that appellees have owned and worked for more than 20 years would seem both unfair and inconsistent with the purposes underlying FLPMA.
The Government has not disputed that appellees sought in good faith to comply with the statutory deadline. Appellees contend that, in order to meet the requirements of § 314, they contacted the BLM and were informed by agency personnel that they could file the required materials on December 31, 1980. Appellees apparently relied on this advice and hand-delivered the appropriate documents to the local BLM office on that date. The BLM accepted the documents for filing, but some three months later sent appellees a notice stating that their mining claims were "abandoned and void" because the filing was made on, rather than prior to, December 31, 1980. Although BLM regulations clarify the filing deadlines contained in § 314, the existence of those regulations does not imply that appellees were unjustified in their confusion concerning the deadlines or in their reliance on the advice provided by BLM's local office. The BLM itself in 1978 issued an explanatory pamphlet stating that the annual filings were to be made "on or before December 31" of each year. Ante at 471 U. S. 89 -90, n. 7. Moreover, the BLM evidently has come to understand the need to clarify the nature of the annual filing requirement, because it now sends reminder notices every year to holders of recorded mining claims warning them that the deadline is approaching and that filings must be made on or before December 30.
The unusual facts alleged by appellees suggest that the BLM's actions might estop the Government from relying on § 314(c) to obliterate a property interest that has provided a family's livelihood for decades. The Court properly notes that the estoppel issue was not addressed by the District Court, and will be open on remand. Ante at 471 U. S. 89 -90, n. 7. In this regard, I merely note that, in my view, our previous decisions do not preclude application of estoppel in this context. In Heckler v. Community Health Services of Crawford County, Inc., 467 U. S. 51 (1984), we expressly declined to adopt "a flat rule that estoppel may not in any circumstances run against the Government." Id. at 467 U. S. 60. Such a rule was unnecessary to the decision in that case, and we noted our reluctance to hold that
there are no cases in which the public interest in ensuring that the Government can enforce the law free from estoppel might be outweighed by the countervailing interest of citizens in some minimum standard of decency, honor, and reliability in their dealings with their Government.
Id. at 471 U. S. 60 -61 (footnote omitted).
Although "it is well settled that the Government may not be estopped on the same terms as any other litigant," id. at 471 U. S. 60 (footnote omitted), we have never held that the Government can extinguish a vested property interest that has been legally held and actively maintained for more than 20 years merely because the private owners relied on advice from agency personnel concerning a poorly worded statutory deadline and consequently missed a filing deadline by one day. Thus, if the District Court ultimately determines that appellees reasonably relied on communications from the BLM in making their annual filing on December 31, 1980, our previous decisions would not necessarily bar application of the doctrine of equitable estoppel. Accordingly, the fact that the Court reverses the decision of the District Court does not establish that appellees must ultimately forfeit their mining claims.
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