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Sunbelt Rentals, Inc. v. United States

United States District Court, D. Idaho

October 30, 2018

SUNBELT RENTALS, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          HONORABLE CANDY W. DALE, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         INTRODUCTION

         Before the Court is Defendant's motion to dismiss. Defendant contends that, although styled as a tort claim, Plaintiff's claim is based upon and relates to a procurement contract with the United States, the exclusive remedy for which is the Contract Disputes Act. According to the United States, the Act provides a comprehensive statutory scheme and does not confer jurisdiction upon the Court. The parties filed responsive briefing, and it is now ripe for the Court's consideration. Having fully reviewed the record herein, the Court finds that the facts and legal arguments are adequately presented in the briefs and record. Accordingly, in the interest of avoiding delay, and because the Court conclusively finds that the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument, the motion will be decided on the record before this Court and the hearing set for October 31, 2018, will be vacated. Dist. Idaho L. Rule 7.1(d). For the reasons that follow, the Court finds it lacks jurisdiction and will grant Defendant's motion to dismiss.

         BACKGROUND[1]

         On or about September 12, 2016, the Bureau of Reclamation rented a manlift from Sunbelt. Compl. ¶¶ 11-12, ECF No. 1. Plaintiff alleges that “[o]n or about September 16, 2016 at approximately 3:00 P.M., Bureau of Reclamation employees were transporting the Equipment, ” when “the trailer, which was carrying the Equipment tipped over.” Id. ¶¶ 13, 16. Plaintiff later submitted a tort claim in the amount of $133, 089.00 to the Bureau of Reclamation “to recover losses, per the terms of the Rental Agreement between” Plaintiff and the Bureau of Reclamation. Compl. ¶ 9; Decl. of Matthew C. Watts, Ex. A.[2]Both parties acknowledge that an express agreement for the rental of the Equipment was reached. Compl. ¶ 11 (the Bureau of Reclamation “rented” the Equipment); Ans. ¶ 11 (admitting the allegations in ¶ 11 of the Complaint.) The Office of the Solicitor for the United States Department of the Interior denied Sunbelt's claim on behalf of the Bureau of Reclamation on February 28, 2017. Compl. ¶ 9. Plaintiff filed the Complaint alleging a tort under the Federal Tort Claims Act. (Compl., Dkt. 1.)[3]

         The United States moves to dismiss Plaintiff's tort claim for lack of jurisdiction, arguing that because Plaintiff's claim is based upon and relates to a procurement contract with the United States, the exclusive remedy is under the Contract Disputes Act. The United States' motion is predicated on a challenge to jurisdiction as a factual matter. Plaintiff disagrees, arguing that it has asserted a negligence claim against the United States, and its claim is not a contract claim disguised as a tort claim. Plaintiff contends this action is properly brought as a tort claim, and therefore the Court has jurisdiction under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

         DISPOSITION

         1. Standard of Review

          The United States contends the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction as a factual matter under Fed. Rule Civ. P. 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(3). A motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction may either attack the allegations in the complaint or may be made as a “speaking motion” attacking the existence of subject matter jurisdiction in fact. Thornhill Pub. Co. v. Gen. Tel. & Elecs. Corp., 594 F.2d 730, 733 (9th Cir. 1979). When a Rule 12(b)(1) motion attacks the substance of a complaint's jurisdictional allegations despite their formal sufficiency, the trial court may rely on affidavits and other evidence submitted in connection with the motion. St. Clair v. City of Chico, 880 F.2d 199, 201 (9th Cir. 1989) (citing Berardinelli v. Castle & Cooke Inc., 587 F.2d 37, 39 (9th Cir. 1978)).

         Because the issue in a factual attack under Rule 12(b)(1) is the “trial court's jurisdiction-its very power to hear the case-there is substantial authority that the trial court is free to weigh the evidence and satisfy itself as to the existence of its power to hear the case. In short, no presumptive truthfulness attaches to plaintiff's allegations, and the existence of disputed material facts will not preclude the trial court from evaluating for itself the merits of jurisdictional claims.” Mortensen v. First Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass'n, 549 F.2d 884, 891 (3d Cir. 1977). Plaintiff bears the burden of proving that jurisdiction exists. Mortensen, 549 F.2d at 891.

         2. Applicable Law

         “It is axiomatic that the United States may not be sued without its consent and that the existence of consent is a prerequisite for jurisdiction.” United States v. Mitchell, 463 U.S. 206, 212 (1983). Statutes waiving sovereign immunity must be strictly adhered to, and any waiver must be strictly construed in favor of the United States. Brady v. United States, 211 F.3d 499, 502 (9th Cir. 2000).

         Immunity of the United States to suits in tort was waived upon the enactment of the Federal Tort Claims Act in 1946, which conferred on the district courts “exclusive jurisdiction of civil actions on claims against the United States, for money damages…for injury or loss of property…caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government while acting within the scope of his office or employment, under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant….” 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b).

         For those cases not sounding in tort, the Tucker Act conferred upon the United States Court of Federal Claims the power to “render judgment upon any claim against the United States founded either upon the Constitution, or any Act of Congress or any regulation of an executive department, or upon any express or implied contract with the United States, or for liquidated or unliquidated damages.” 28 U.S.C. § 1491(a). 28 U.S.C. § 1941(a)(2) further grants the Court of Federal Claims “jurisdiction to render judgment upon any claim by or against, or dispute with, a contractor arising under” the Contract Disputes Act. Summit Multi-Family Hous. Corp. v. United States, 124 Fed.Cl. 562, 569 (2015).

         The Contract Disputes Act (CDA), enacted in 1978, [4] covers any claim based upon “any express or implied contract ... made by an executive agency for-(1) the procurement of property, other than real property in being; (2) the procurement of services; (3) the procurement of construction, alteration, repair, or maintenance of real property; or (4) the disposal of personal property.” 41 U.S.C. § 7102(a). Under the CDA, “procurement” means “the acquisition by purchase, lease or barter, of property or services for the direct benefit or use of the Federal Government.” New Era Constr. v. United States, 890 F.2d 1152, 1157 (Fed. Cir. 1989) (quotation and emphasis omitted).

         The CDA sets forth its own jurisdictional requirements. See M. Maropakis Carpentry, Inc. v. United States, 609 F.3d 1323, 1327-28 (Fed. Cir. 2010). Under the CDA, claims by a government contractor against the United States must first be the subject of a decision by the contracting officer, defined as “any person who ... has the authority to enter into and administer contracts and make determinations and findings with respect thereto.” 41 U.S.C. §§ 601(3), 605(a). The decision by the contracting officer may be appealed to an agency board of contract appeals or to the United States Court of Federal Claims. 41 U.S.C. §§ 607(d), 609(c). Further appeals from these bodies must be ...


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