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Brown v. United States

November 03, 1999


Before Mayer, Chief Judge, Michel and Clevenger, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michel, Circuit Judge.

Appealed from: United States Court of Federal Claims Senior Judge Reginald W. Gibson United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

Errol Brown et al. ("Brown"), Native Americans, sued the United States on February 7, 1991 in the United States Claims Court, renamed the United States Court of Federal Claims, alleging breach of fiduciary duties by the Secretary of the Interior (the "Secretary") in connection with administration of leases for tribal land. The trial court dismissed four of the five claims as time-barred and, alternatively, as failing to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. See Brown v. United States, 42 Fed. Cl. 538 (1998). Brown appeals the trial court's decision, but only with respect to two of the dismissed claims. Because we conclude that Brown has not alleged facts sufficient to toll the statute of limitations and these two claims had accrued more than six years prior to the day the suit was filed, we affirm.


This is the second appeal we have heard in this case. The first appeal arose after the trial court dismissed the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. See Brown v. United States, 32 Fed. Cl. 509 (1994). In Brown v. United States, 86 F.3d 1554 (Fed. Cir. 1996), we reversed the trial court, holding that the Court of Federal Claims did in fact possess subject matter jurisdiction over Brown's claims based on a fiduciary duty arising from 25 U.S.C. § 415 (1994), although expressly declining to determine the scope of that duty in the first instance.


The Plaintiffs-Appellants are all members of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community located near the City of Scottsdale, Arizona. Each member was an allottee of at least one 10-acre parcel of reservation land under the General Allotment Act. Act of Feb. 8, 1877, ch. 119, 24 Stat. 388 (codified as amended at 25 U.S.C. §§ 331-34, 339, 341-42, 348-49, 354, & 381 (1994)). On June 1, 1964, pursuant to the leasing power extended to them by the Act of August 9, 1955, § 1, 69 Stat. 539, (codified as amended at 25 U.S.C. § 415 (1964)), the allottees (or their predecessors in interest) collectively leased their land as a 160-acre parcel to Stovers, Inc. ("Stovers") for use as a commercial golf course for a term of 25 years.

The lease was approved by the Secretary, as required under section 415, and signed by each of the individual allottees as the collective lessors of the property. The lease provided that the lessee would pay to the lessors a fixed ground rental in quarterly installments plus a quarterly payment equal to a percentage of the golf course's gross receipts. The lease also required that a certified public accountant of the lessee's choice submit certified quarterly statements of gross receipts to both the lessors and the Secretary. Additionally, the lease included a "rental adjustment" clause that mandated review and adjustment of the rental provisions of the lease by the Secretary at not less than five-year intervals.

In 1975, after the passage of the Indian Self-Determination Act, Pub. L. 93-638, 88 Stat. 2203 (codified as amended at 25 U.S.C. §§ 450 et seq. (1994)), the Salt River Tribe (the "Tribe") asked to take over the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs' (the "BIA's") realty program for all leases on the reservation, including the lease at issue. The BIA complied with the request by express contract with the Tribe, whereby the Tribe assumed control over the day-to-day administration and compliance review of all leases.

Stovers encountered various difficulties in the early years of the lease, leading to a series of transfers of the leasehold interest. The lessee at the center of this controversy is Lawrence G. Malanfant, who began acquiring a controlling interest in the then Pima Inn and Golf Resort, Inc. ("Pima") in 1978. On July 20, 1979, Malanfant sought to extend the lease term and proposed to make specific improvements to the property. Approximately two months later in 1979, one of the allottees, Virgil Brown, who is not a party to this suit, asked Pima for certified financial statements of gross receipts for 1977 and 1978. There is no indication in the record that Pima complied with Virgil Brown's request. Also in September, 1979, Virgil Brown, on behalf of the other allottees, authorized an agent to audit Pima. There is no indication in the record that an audit was conducted as a result of this authorization, or otherwise.

In October and November 1986, Virgil Brown wrote to the Tribe requesting copies of current accounting statements and stating his belief that Pima was in breach of the lease. In April 1987, the Tribe received a non-certified statement of receipts from Pima, which it forwarded to the allottees. In May 1987, Virgil Brown hired certified public accountant Robert Rose to conduct an audit. Rose completed the audit on May 29, 1987 and concluded that Pima had underreported its gross receipts. In December 1987, Virgil Brown sent letters to the BIA and the Tribe requesting that each send a "show cause for cancellation" letter to Pima based on the findings of the audit. The BIA acknowledged there might be a problem with the lease and requested a report from the Tribe, as manager of the lease.

In 1988, the Tribe launched an investigation into Pima's compliance with the lease terms. The Tribe conducted its own audit, confirmed Mr. Rose's earlier findings and sent a "show cause" letter to Pima on December 16, 1988. Pima responded on December 28, 1988, urging that the lease not be canceled. The Tribe and Pima exchanged further correspondence and despite the lease expiration date of June 30, 1989, Pima continued to occupy the leased premises into 1990 when the Secretary evicted Pima.


Because jurisdictional determinations are questions of law, we review de novo the United States Court of Federal Claims' decision to dismiss the suit as barred by the statute of limitations. See Alder Terrace, Inc. v. United States, 161 F.3d 1372, 1377 (Fed. Cir. 1998). The relevant statute of limitations provides: "[e]very claim of which the United States Court of Federal Claims has jurisdiction shall be barred unless the petition thereon is filed within six years after such claim first accrues." 28 U.S.C. ยง 2501 (1994). Therefore, to be viable, the claims in the instant case must have accrued on or after February 7, 1985. However, a claim against a fiduciary, here the Secretary, accrues ...

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