This week, the Ninth Circuit addresses whether the principles of Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994) apply to the accrual of federal civil rights claims against a university and considers the Department of Interior’s authority to enter into a land-exchange agreement in rural Alaska.
The Court holds that neither Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994) nor a Heck-like rule of delayed accrual applies to the determination of when the plaintiff’s federal civil rights claims against his former university accrued.
Panel: Judges Gilman (6th Cir.), Bress, and VanDyke, with Judge Bress writing the opinion.
Key Highlight: “If a plaintiff has a ‘complete and present cause of action,’ his claim accrues under federal law . . . We cannot brush off that basic precept and elongate the limitations period on our own.”
Background: On January 20, 2020, plaintiff sued his former university for violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and other statutes for claims arising out on-campus incidents in February and July 2017 that led to an August 2017 disciplinary warning against him. Plaintiff claimed that the University’s actions were racially discriminatory and caused him emotional distress and other injuries. The district court dismissed plaintiff’s claims untimely because they were brought more than two years after plaintiff was injured. Plaintiff appealed.
Result: The Ninth Circuit affirmed. The Court agreed with the district court that plaintiff’s claims were untimely. Those claims accrued when plaintiff was injured, which occurred, at the latest, by August 24, 2017 when the University issued its disciplinary warning. Plaintiff did not bring suit within two years of that date. Plaintiff argued that, under the principles set forth in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), his claims did not accrue until August 29, 2018, when the University rescinded his disciplinary warning. In Heck, the Supreme Court held that a § 1983 cause of action for damages attributable to an unconstitutional conviction or sentence does not accrue until the conviction or sentence has been invalidated. The Ninth Circuit found plaintiff’s reliance on Heck misplaced because Heck relied on the hoary principle that civil tort actions are not appropriate vehicles for challenging the validity of outstanding criminal judgments. But as there was no conviction or confinement here, the Heck doctrine has no application. The Court also held that no Heck-like rule of delayed accrual should apply in this case. Unlike malicious prosecution claims, which Heck analogized to, plaintiff’s claims do not require proof of favorable termination of his university disciplinary warning. The plaintiff invoked the university’s disciplinary warning process not as a legal impediment that prevented him from bringing suit, but as a fortuity that should allow him to delay bringing his claims. The analogy to malicious prosecution cannot be deployed in that manner. Moreover, plaintiff’s argument would mean that plaintiff would have no cognizable § 1983 claim at all, unless and until the university’s disciplinary process terminated in his favor. The Court did not think the malicious prosecution analogy could be stretched to impose such a hard bargain in the context before it.
A divided panel holds that a proposed land-exchange agreement is authorized under the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act (“ANILCA”) and does not violate the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”), even though the Department of Interior had previously decided against it.
The panel: Judges Wardlaw, Miller, and Bade, with Judge Miller writing the opinion and Judge Wardlaw dissenting.
Key highlight: “[B]y using the word ‘adequate,’ Congress gave the Secretary discretion to strike an appropriate balance between environmental interests and ‘economic and social needs.’ 16 U.S.C. § 3101(d). Secretary Bernhardt exercised that discretion when he found that, without a road, the economic and social needs of the people of King Cove would not be adequately met.”
Background: King Cove is a remote village near the end of the Alaska Peninsula, with limited medical facilities and a small airport that is not reliable for medical evacuations to Anchorage and Seattle. King Cove residents—many of them Native Alaskans—have long lobbied for an access road to Cold Bay, Alaska, which is located 18 miles away and features a larger, all-weather airport. However, the proposed road would cut through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Izembek is home to a wild variety of flora and fauna and is largely designated as wilderness. As a result, no roads may be built through the wildlife refuge.
In 2009, Congress authorized the Secretary of the Interior to establish a land-exchange agreement with the King Cove Corporation that would allow for a single-lane road connecting King Cove and Cold Bay. Congress instructed the Secretary to study the environmental impact of the road and whether the road was in the public interest. In 2013, then-Secretary Sally Jewell decided against the exchange on the basis that the road was not necessary for health and safety purposes and would cause serious ecological harms; she explained these findings in a lengthy Record of Decision (“ROD”).
In 2018, then-Secretary Ryan Zinke reversed course and approved the land-exchange agreement. By then, the Secretary’s authority under the 2019 Act had expired, so he instead relied on a provision of the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act (“ANILCA”), which allows the Secretary to acquire lands to exchange with Alaska Native village corporations. Environmental groups challenged that decision and the district court ultimately vacated the agreement. Friends of Alaska Nat’l Wildlife Refuges v. Bernhardt, 381 F. Supp. 3d 1127, 1144 (D. Alaska 2019). In 2019, King Cove Corporation asked Secretary David Bernhardt to reconsider and he approved a new land-exchange agreement under ANILCA. Environmental groups sued and the district court again vacated the agreement. Granting summary judgment for the plaintiffs, the court reasoned that the land-exchange agreement did not advance the purposes of ANILCA and was arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”).
Result: A divided Ninth Circuit panel reversed. First, the Court held that the land-exchange agreement squares with ANICLA’s purposes. Parsing the language of the statute, the Court noted that ANILCA’s purposes include providing “adequate opportunity for satisfaction of the economic and social needs of the State of Alaska and its people.” 16 U.S.C. § 3101(d). And following the Supreme Court’s decision in Sturgeon v. Frost, 139 S. Ct. 1066 (2019), the Court understood ANILCA to require balancing economic and social needs with environmental concerns. The Court concluded that Secretary Bernhardt appropriately weighed these tradeoffs.
Second, the Court held that the land-exchange agreement did not violate the APA. It reasoned that Secretary Bernhardt provided a “satisfactory explanation” for his decision. The Court explained that agencies are allowed to change course or shift priorities following changes in presidential administrations, even when the underlying facts remain largely the same. Whereas the district court concluded that the Secretary “failed to provide adequate reasoning to support the change in policy,” the Court disagreed. It determined that Secretary Bernhardt’s reevaluation was sufficient.
Judge Wardlaw dissented, arguing that the land-exchange agreement violated both the APA and ANICLA. Judge Wardlaw focused on how Secretary Bernhardt’s decision contradicted key factual findings in Secretary Jewell’s 2013 ROD. She explained that when that happens, the agency must provide a “more substantial justification” for the policy change, and that Secretary Bernhardt failed to do so. Next, Judge Wardlaw argued that the Secretary lacked authority to enter into the agreement under ANICLA. She contended that ANICLA’s clear purpose is to preserve Alaska’s ecosystems and protect rural residents’ subsistence way of life—and that the proposed land exchange does not serve either purpose. Although the majority held that ANICLA authorized the Secretary to consider “economic and social needs,” Judge Wardlaw argued that the majority invoked this language from § 3101(d) out of context. Finally, Judge Wardlaw argued that the land-exchange agreement violated special procedures in Title XI of ANICLA.