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South Spanish Trail, LLC v. Globenet Cabos Submarinos America, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Florida

July 22, 2019


          Brann Judge



         THIS MATTER comes before the Court upon the Motion to Dismiss (the “Motion”) [ECF No. 27] filed by the Third-Party Defendant, the United States of America, on April 5, 2019. That Motion argues both that the Third-Party Plaintiff, Globenet Cabos Submarinos America, Inc. (“Globenet”), fails to state a claim against the United States, and that, in any event, the Court does not have subject matter jurisdiction to hear the claim. Globenet filed its Response in Opposition (the “Response”) [ECF No. 41] on May 3, 2019, and the matter ripened on May 10, 2019, when the United States filed its Reply (the “Reply”) [ECF No. 43].

         The Law

         Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b), a defendant may move for dismissal of a claim based on one or more of seven specific defenses: (1) lack of subject matter jurisdiction; (2) lack of personal jurisdiction; (3) improper venue; (4) insufficiency of process; (5) insufficiency of service of process; (6) failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted; and (7) failure to join a party under Rule 19. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b).

         “A motion to dismiss is only granted when the movant demonstrates ‘beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief.'” Harper v. Blockbuster Entertainment Corp., 139 F.3d 1385, 1387 (11th Cir. 1998) (citing Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957)). “On a motion to dismiss, the facts stated in appellant's complaint and all reasonable inferences therefrom are taken as true.” Stephens v. Dep't of Health and Human Servs., 901 F.2d 1571, 1573 (11th Cir. 1990).

         A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1) may attack subject matter jurisdiction either facially or factually. Lawrence v. Dunbar, 919 F.2d 1525, 1528-29 (11th Cir. 1990). On a facial challenge, the Court must, as with other Rule 12(b) motions, limit its review to the factual allegations in the complaint-accepting well-pled allegations as true. Id. A factual attack, however, challenges “the existence of subject matter jurisdiction in fact” and requires that the Court examine materials outside of the pleadings, such as testimony, declarations, and affidavits, to ensure the proper exercise of its jurisdiction. Id.

         “To survive a motion to dismiss [under Rule 12(b)(6)], a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

         The Facts

         In 1927, Congress enacted legislation that authorized the federal government to purchase or condemn private lands for the purpose of constructing the “Intracoastal Waterway, ” a submerged tract of land that runs from Trenton, New Jersey, to Brownsville, Texas. See Answer ¶ 8. Acting on this authority, the United States initiated condemnation proceedings in a number of federal courts along the eastern seaboard-all with an eye towards acquiring rights-of-way over the lands through which the Intracoastal Waterway now runs. See Id. ¶ 9. These actions were on the whole successful. As relevant here, in 1935, this Court entered a final judgment, in which it transferred to the United States the rights to a narrow strip of land in Palm Beach County, Florida (the “Subject Property”). See Id. ¶ 10. It is undisputed that, as a part of this judgment, the prior owners of this land received “just compensation” from the federal government. See id.

         Sixty-eight years later, in 2003, the United States, acting through the Army Corps of Engineers, granted Globenet a Consent to Easement (“Consent”) over a portion of this land. See Answer Ex. D (the “Consent”) [ECF No. 24-4]. That Consent gave Globenet a right-of-way, commensurate with the government's own right-of-way, to lay fiber optic cable over a sliver of the Intracoastal Waterway. See Answer ¶¶ 15-16. The Consent was subject to a number of conditions-one of which required Globenet to obtain both the consent of the State of Florida and of the owners of the property on which the Intracoastal had been built. See Consent ¶ 1. Globenet acquired the State's consent later in 2003, when Florida's Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund granted Globenet an easement to lay fiber optic cable over the Subject Property. See Answer Ex. E (the “Florida Consent”) [ECF No. 25-5]. Thus, as of 2003, Globenet had obtained, from both the United States and the State of Florida, the right to lay its fiber optic cable over the Subject Property.

         South Spanish Trail is a Florida limited liability company that claims to have purchased the Subject Property in 2016. See generally Notice of Removal [ECF No. 1]. In 2018, it brought suit against Globenet in the 15th Judicial Circuit in and for Palm Beach County, alleging that Globenet has neither an interest in the Subject Property nor any right to lay its cable there. See Notice of Removal Ex. 3 [ECF No. 1-3].[1] Globenet answered on December 23, 2018, and, in addition to responding to South Spanish Trail's complaint, brought its own claims against both South Spanish Trail and the United States. See Notice of Removal Ex. 4 [ECF No. 1-4]. On March 25, 2019, Globenet amended its Answer and Third-Party Complaint. See Answer [ECF No. 24].

         Against the United States, Globenet asserts only what it calls a “Breach of Easement” claim. See Answer ¶¶ 57-61. That claim alleges that the “United States breached its easement obligations owed to Globenet, ” id. ¶ 59, and that this “breach deprived Globenet of a legitimate constitutionally protected interest, ” id. ¶ 61. Specifically, Globenet says that the United States engaged in a “taking” without just compensation, in violation of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. See Response at 9, 11.

         On April 5, 2019, the United States moved to dismiss Globenet's Third-Party Complaint. See generally Motion. In its Motion, the United States argues both that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the claim, see Id. at 2, and that Globenet fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, see Id. at 9. Specifically, the United States says that Globenet's “Breach of Easement” claim, properly construed, “is nothing more than a breach of contract claim.” Mot. at 2 (cleaned up). Then, citing Alabama Rural Fire Ins. Co. v. Naylor, 530 F.2d 1221 (5th Cir. 1976), the United States contends that this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over breach of contract claims against the federal government-even where those claims seeks only specific performance. See Id. Finally, noting that there are no set of circumstances under which Globenet could plead a viable contract claim, the United States asks this Court to dismiss Globenet's Third-Party Complaint with prejudice. See Id. at 8.

         Globenet responds that it has, in fact, stated a valid Takings Clause claim under the Fifth Amendment. See Response at 10 (“In its amended third-party claim, Globenet asserts a federal takings claim against the United States related to the Government's breach of its obligations under the [Consent].” (citing Answer ¶¶ 57-61)). Globenet then surveys the jurisprudential record from other circuits and argues that, where a contract claim implicates a constitutional question-such as an alleged violation of the Takings Clause-a district court does have jurisdiction over that claim. See Response at 11 (citing Transohio Sav. Bank v. Dir., Office of Thrift Supervision, 967 F.2d 598, 610 (D.C. Cir. 1992)).


         I. Contract Claims Against the United States

         The United States is generally immune from suit unless it has expressly waived that immunity by statute. See Zelaya v. United States, 781 F.3d 1315, 1322 (11th Cir. 2015). In 1976, Congress amended the Administrative Procedure Act (the “APA”) so as to waive sovereign immunity for a broad range of suits that seek non-monetary relief from federal agencies or officials. See 5. U.S.C. § 702. But this waiver is subject to certain well-specified exceptions. Nothing in the APA, for example, “confers authority to grant relief if any other statute that grants consent to suit expressly or impliedly forbids the relief which is sought.” Id. Similarly, the APA only waives sovereign immunity for actions ...

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