A Lapeer County gravel operation lost out to the federal government on Tuesday in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that could influence thousands of similar cases.
In a 7-2 ruling, the justices said Metamora-based John R. Sand & Gravel Co. waited too long to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for property it seized as a Superfund cleanup site.
Justice Stephen Breyer said a federal appeals court was correct in raising the deadline question without being asked to do so by either party, and to rule that the company missed the deadline.
In some instances, such as lawsuits against the government, the Supreme Court "has often read the time limits ... as more absolute," Breyer wrote.
Justice John Paul Stevens dissented, saying the majority's decision "has a hollow ring" because the court previously had overturned a precedent that it relied on for Tuesday's decision.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Stevens in dissent.
"We're very disappointed in this ruling," said Jeff Haynes, a Bloomfield Hills attorney who represented the gravel company.
The decision ends the company's chances to collect any compensation from the EPA and will prompt other claimants to sue "early and often" to avoid a similar fate, Haynes said.
John R. sued the EPA in 2002 after the agency permanently fenced off 40 acres of land the company was leasing from a property owner.
Some of the seized property had been used as a municipal dump until about 1980 and was considered a hazardous waste site, although a portion contained clean sand and gravel, Haynes said.
The case initially was filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, which hears claims involving the taking of private property without fair compensation.
The high court reviewed an appeal panel's finding that the John R. suit was barred by the six-year statue of limitations.
The EPA originally agreed that the case had been filed in a timely manner and didn't raise the statute of limitations issue, Haynes said.
But companies hired to clean up landfills intervened as friends of the court and raised the jurisdictional question, he said.
The appeals panel and the Supreme Court held that the clock started running when the EPA began erecting a series of temporary fences -- not when it permanently seized the 40 acres, Haynes said.
The effect of the high court's ruling is that judges at each step in the process will have to rule on time-limit issues in cases brought for money damages against the government, he said.
And anyone who wants to sue the federal government for taking private property without compensation will have to bring their claim as early as possible or risk having it tossed out, he said.
"We'll have a lot more needless lawsuits because property owners are going to have to protect their rights," Haynes said.
The Supreme Court didn't consider whether John R. was entitled to compensation by the EPA.
Haynes said the company valued the confiscated land at $8 million, while the EPA valued it at $250,000.