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Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority v. Ark Union Station, Inc.

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 3, 2017

WASHINGTON METROPOLITAN AREA TRANSIT AUTHORITY, Plaintiff,
v.
ARK UNION STATION, INC., et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KETANJI BROWN JACKSON, United States District Judge

         This is a case about whose interests the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (“WMATA”) serves when it spends money to repair damaged transit infrastructure in the Metrorail system-a proverbial third rail of this region's politics. It is also, quite literally, a case about Metro's third rail. On September 25, 2011, a sewer pipe burst under the (since-closed) America Restaurant in Union Station, and the water and other debris that leaked into the ground below impacted an underground electrical traction power substation (“TPSS”) WMATA owns and uses to operate a portion of the Metro system's Red Line. (See Compl., ECF No. 1, ¶¶ 13-14; see also Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n to Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss (“Opp'n to Union Station Mot.”), ECF No. 10, at 5 (explaining that the TPSS “is used to power the ‘third rail, ' which supplies electricity to rail cars in order to move the trains”).)[1] WMATA alleges that this particular leak “caused fire and water damage to the TPSS and related equipment” (Compl. ¶ 13), which, in turn, “caused WMATA to incur extensive repairs, replacement of equipment, and other lost revenue” (id. ¶ 15).

         To recover these expenses, WMATA filed the instant lawsuit against Ark Union Station Incorporated and Ark Restaurants Corporation, which jointly operated the America Restaurant (collectively, “the Restaurant Defendants”). (See Id. ¶¶ 3-4, 9.) WMATA also named as defendants both Union Station Redevelopment Corporation, which “was responsible for maintenance and construction projects” at Union Station (id. ¶ 11), and Jones Lang LaSalle Americas, Inc., which “was the property management company for Union Station” (collectively, “the Union Station Defendants”) (id. ¶ 12).[2]WMATA's one-count complaint asserts a claim of common law negligence on the grounds that “Defendants, jointly and severally, breached their duty to WMATA by not maintaining or preventing the pipe in question from breaking and leaking water, and otherwise failing to take immediate action once the pipe failed.” (Id. ¶ 21.) WMATA asks the Court to “enter judgment against the Defendants, jointly and severally, in the amount of $6, 000, 000, plus pre- and post-judgment interest and costs[.]” (Id. ¶ 22.)

         Significantly for present purposes, WMATA filed its complaint on December 23, 2014, which is slightly more than three years after the water damage occurred. The time lag between the pipe-burst incident and WMATA's filing of the instant complaint has turned into a major source of conflict among the parties: in separate motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6)-which are before this Court at present-the Union Station Defendants and the Restaurant Defendants argue that this lawsuit must be dismissed as untimely because WMATA's claim is barred by the District of Columbia's three-year statute of limitations for actions “for which a limitation is not otherwise specially prescribed[.]” D.C. Code § 12-301(8). (See Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss by Defs. Jones Lang LaSalle Ams., Inc. & Union Station Redevelopment Corp. (“Union Station Mot.”), ECF No. 7-1, at 8; Mem. in Supp. of Ark Restaurants Corp. & Ark Union Station Inc.'s Mot. to Dismiss (“Restaurant Mot.”), ECF No. 22, at 3-9.) See also Bussineau v. President & Dirs. of Georgetown Coll., 518 A.2d 423, 425 (D.C. 1986) (explaining that this residual limitations provision applies to “an action for negligence”). Both sets of Defendants fully acknowledge that WMATA is an agency of the District of Columbia government and that the District's statute of limitations “does not apply . . . to actions brought by the District of Columbia government.” D.C. Code § 12-301. However, Defendants argue that WMATA's claim is nevertheless time-barred because the D.C.-government exemption only applies to WMATA lawsuits that seek to vindicate “public rights, ” and in Defendants' view, this is not such a lawsuit. (See Union Station Mot. at 8-17; Restaurant Mot. at 3-9.)

         In response, WMATA offers several reasons why the instant action is not time-barred. (See generally Opp'n to Union Station Mot.; Pl.'s Opp'n to Defs. Ark Restaurant Corp. & Ark Union Station Inc.'s Mot. to Dismiss (“Opp'n to Restaurant Mot.”), ECF No. 23.) First, WMATA argues that it is exempted from the statute of limitations regardless of whether this lawsuit seeks to vindicate a public right, because WMATA derives from Maryland and Virginia a categorical immunity from statutes of limitation. (See Opp'n to Union Station Mot. at 6-9; Opp'n to Restaurant Mot. at 1-2.) Second, WMATA maintains that even if it possesses only the limited municipal immunity from statutes of limitation that is reflected in D.C. Code § 12-301, it is exempted from the statute of limitations under that provision because this lawsuit does, in fact, seek to vindicate a public right. (See Opp'n to Union Station Mot. at 9-17; Opp'n to Restaurant Mot. at 2-4.) Finally, WMATA argues that, assuming arguendo that the instant lawsuit is subject to the statute of limitations, it is nevertheless timely, because the applicable provision of that statute is the one that prescribes a five-year limitations period “for the recovery of damages for an injury to real property from toxic substances including products containing asbestos[, ]” D.C. Code § 12-301(10), and not the provision that contains a three-year period for actions “for which a limitation is not otherwise specially prescribed[, ]” id. § 12-301(8). (See Opp'n to Union Station Mot. at 17.)

         Both motions to dismiss are now ripe for this Court's review. (See Union Station Mot.; Opp'n to Union Station Mot.; Mem. in Reply to Pl.'s Opp'n to Defs. Jones Lang LaSalle Ams., Inc.'s & Union Station Redevelopment Corp.'s Mot. to Dismiss (“Union Station Reply”), ECF No. 11; Restaurant Mot.; Opp'n to Restaurant Mot.) In addition, the Court ordered supplemental briefing from WMATA and the Union Station Defendants regarding the relevance of case law concerning WMATA's sovereign immunity from tort suits, and the extent to which WMATA's claim seeks to vindicate a public right. (See Min. Order of Feb. 17, 2016; see also Suppl. Br. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss (“Union Station Suppl. Br.”), ECF No. 18; Pl.'s Suppl. Br. in Opp'n to Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss (“Pl.'s Suppl. Br.”), ECF No. 19; Reply Mem. of Defs. Jones Lang LaSalle Ams., Inc. & Union Station Redevelopment Corp. (“Union Station Suppl. Reply”), ECF No. 20; Pl.'s Reply to the Defs.' Suppl. Br. in Opp'n to Defs.' Mot to Dismiss (“Pl.'s Suppl. Reply”), ECF No. 21.) Having considered the parties' arguments, and for the reasons explained fully below, this Court agrees with WMATA that this lawsuit seeks to vindicate a public right because it advances WMATA's charter purpose of operating public transit facilities, and therefore, WMATA's claim is not subject to the statute of limitations prescribed by the D.C. Code. Accordingly, the motions to dismiss that the Union Station Defendants and the Restaurant Defendants have filed will be DENIED. A separate Order consistent with this Memorandum Opinion will follow.

         I. BACKGROUND

         WMATA is a “common agency” of the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, D.C. Code § 9-1107.01(2), and the parties debate the degree to which that status renders WMATA immune from the running of the District's statute of limitations in this lawsuit-a negligence action arising under District of Columbia law. Thus, WMATA's history and structure are relevant background, and so too is the law of government immunity from statutes of limitation, both in general and as it exists in the District of Columbia.

         A. The History And Structure Of WMATA

         On November 6, 1966, Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia entered into a compact that “created WMATA” in order “to operate a mass transit system for the District of Columbia and the surrounding suburban areas of Maryland and Virginia.” Morris v. WMATA, 781 F.2d 218, 219 (D.C. Cir. 1986). Congress consented to the WMATA Compact as the Constitution requires, see U.S. Const. art. I, § 10, cl. 3, and it also enacted the Compact as part of the District of Columbia's local law, see Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth. Compact, Pub. L. No. 89-774, 80 Stat. 1324 (1966) (codified as amended at D.C. Code § 9-1107.01). In a section entitled “Purpose and Functions, ” the Compact instructs WMATA “to plan, develop, finance and cause to be operated improved transit facilities . . . as part of a balanced regional system of transportation[.]” Id. § 9-1107.01(2).

         Pursuant to the Compact, WMATA is “a body corporate and politic” that exists as a “common agency” of the District, Maryland, and Virginia. Id. § 9-1107.01(2), (4) (emphasis added). It was “foreseen” that WMATA's “fare revenues [would] never come close to covering [its] costs[.]” Morris, 781 F.2d at 225; see also D.C. Code § 9-1107.01(16) (providing that operating budget deficits “shall be equitably shared among the federal, District of Columbia and participating local governments”). Thus, the Compact contains “[c]ommitments for [f]inancial [p]articipation” from each of the signatory jurisdictions, D.C. Code § 9-1107.01(18), and it also authorizes WMATA to borrow money, issue bonds, and raise revenue through other means, see Id. § 9-1107.01(27).

         Notably, the Compact does not address the degree to which WMATA is subject to the statutes of limitation of its signatory jurisdictions when it is engaged in litigation. But the Compact does address WMATA's sovereign immunity from liability, providing that WMATA is “liable for its contracts and for its torts . . . committed in the conduct of any proprietary function, . . . but shall not be liable for any torts occurring in the performance of a governmental function.” Id. § 9-1107.01(80); see also Morris, 781 F.3d at 220-21 (explaining that “each of the three signatories . . . confer[red] its sovereign immunity upon WMATA” and that section 80 of the Compact is a “partial waiver of immunity”). The Compact also provides that “[t]he United States District Courts shall have original jurisdiction, concurrent with the Courts of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, of all actions brought by or against [WMATA.]” D.C. Code § 9-1107.01(81). (See also Compl. ¶ 7 (citing section 81 of the WMATA Compact as the basis for this Court's jurisdiction).)

         B. Quod Nullum Tempus Occurrit Regi - No Time Runs Against The King

         Under the common law nullum tempus doctrine, which dates back to the thirteenth century, “the sovereign is exempt from . . . the operation of statutes of limitations[.]” Guaranty Trust Co. of N.Y. v. United States, 304 U.S. 126, 132 (1938); see also BP Am. Prod. Co. v. Burton, 549 U.S. 84, 96 (2006) (citing “the traditional rule quod nullum tempus occurrit regi-time does not run against the King”). Unlike the more familiar doctrine of sovereign immunity, which protects a sovereign from being subjected to suit without its consent, see Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706, 715-16 (1999), the nullum tempus doctrine aids a sovereign that affirmatively invokes a judicial forum and pursues a cause of action that would otherwise be time-barred. See Guaranty Trust Co., 304 U.S. at 134-36.[3] In the American common law system, “‘the implied immunity of the domestic sovereign, state or national, has been universally deemed to be an exception to local statutes of limitation where the government, state or national, is not expressly included.'” Block v. N.D. ex rel. Bd. of Univ. & Sch. Lands, 461 U.S. 273, 294 (1983) (O'Connor, J., dissenting) (quoting Guaranty Trust Co., 304 U.S. at 133).

         Although the nullum tempus doctrine originated as a “prerogative of the Crown[, ]” the doctrine's “survival in the United States has been generally accounted for and justified on grounds of policy rather than upon any inherited notions of the personal privilege of the king.” Guaranty Trust Co., 304 U.S. at 132. Specifically, “the source of its continuing vitality . . . is to be found in the great public policy of preserving the public rights, revenues, and property from injury and loss, by the negligence of public officers.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). That is, courts have determined that “the rule is supportable now because its benefit and advantage extend to every citizen, including the defendant, whose plea of laches or limitations it precludes[.]” Id.

         Consistent with this policy rationale, the Supreme Court has limited the nullum tempus doctrine as it exists in federal common law to those lawsuits that the government brings “as a sovereign government to enforce a public right, or to assert a public interest[.]” United States v. Beebe, 127 U.S. 338, 344 (1888). Thus, the doctrine does not apply when the government seeks to vindicate a “private right, ” such as when it sues to enforce a privately held patent, but the patent-holder is the real party in interest and “the government is a mere formal complainant” in the lawsuit. Id. at 346- 47. Conversely, the doctrine does apply when the government seeks to recover damages that it incurred “in its sovereign capacity, ” even when those damages are the same type that a private company might incur. E. I. Du Pont De Nemours & Co. v. Davis, 264 U.S. 456, 462 (1924) (exempting from the statute of limitations a lawsuit in which the United States, after “taking over and operating the railroad systems of the country . . . as a war measure, under a right in the nature of eminent domain, ” sought to recover damages arising from train-loading delays (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)).

         C. Nullum Tempus Principles And The District Of Columbia

         The Supreme Court has explained that the common law doctrine of nullum tempus is reserved for sovereign entities (i.e., the federal government and the states), and does not extend “to agencies or grantees of the local sovereign such as municipalities, county boards, school districts, and the like.” Guaranty Trust Co., 304 U.S. at 135 n.3. Accordingly, the traditional rule is that a “statute of limitations runs against a county or other municipal corporation”-and in particular against the District of Columbia-just as it would against a private litigant. Metro. R.R. Co. v. District of Columbia, 132 U.S. 1, 12 (1889) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see also Id. (“The prerogative is that of the sovereign alone; . . . [h]er grantees, though artificial bodies created by her, are in the same category with natural persons.” (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)). However, in holding that the nullum tempus doctrine does not extend to municipalities, the Supreme Court also recognized that “offenses against the sovereign power itself” can sometimes occur through intrusion on a “right of property” that the sovereign has “vested in [a] municipality, ” and the Court “express[ed] no opinion” regarding whether or not a municipality's lawsuit that seeks redress for such an offense would be ...


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