In Nash v. Board of Commissioners of Catron County, the New Mexico Supreme Court examined whether the government enjoys sovereign immunity from suits to quiet title. Justice Thomson, writing for a unanimous court, concluded that it does.
This opinion addressed two similar cases that had been consolidated by the Court of Appeals. In the first, the Belen School District sought clear title to land that Valencia County may have had an interest in. In the second, Mr. and Mrs. Nash sought clear title to land that Catron County may have had an interest. To do so, each party filed what is known as a “quiet title” lawsuit.
A quiet title lawsuit is a suit in which a person seeks a declaration from a court that his or her title to the land is superior to one or more other person’s title. Quiet title suits are used to obtain clear title, typically so that the property is salable, but also to settle ownership disputes.
In this case, however, there was a twist: defendants in each of the quiet title suits were state entities. Rather than defend on the merits, Valencia and Catron Counties each moved to dismiss the cases against them, arguing that they enjoyed sovereign immunity and could not be joined as defendants in a quiet title suit. The courts denied Valencia’s motion to dismiss and granted Catron’s motion.
The court of appeals consolidated the cases. Determining that the counties did enjoy sovereign immunity, it reversed the Valencia case and affirmed the Catron case. Both parties appealed to the supreme court, which granted certiorari and kept the case consolidated.
In New Mexico, sovereign immunity is granted (or waived) by statute. The legislature has the power to impose statutory immunity, and it also has the power to create exceptions to that immunity. This case required the Court to construe two statutes to determine whether the counties had sovereign immunity from quiet title suits.
The first statute, Section 42-11-1, was straightforward and not really in dispute. Under that law, state entities (including the counties) were immune from “any … legal proceeding involving a claim of title to or interest in real property except as specifically authorized by law.” In other words, unless a separate statute specifically waived immunity, the counties could not be sued for quiet title.
Such a statute did exist, but it was ambiguous. Section 42-6-12 allowed the state to be sued for quiet title “to quiet title to or for the foreclosure of a mortgage of other lien upon real estate … for the purpose of securing an adjudication touching any mortgage or other lien the state may have or claim on the” property. The statute was susceptible to two readings: (1) a broad waiver of immunity for quiet title and foreclosing liens, or (2) a narrow waiver for lien foreclosures only. The plaintiffs argued for the broader construction and the counties argued for the narrower one.
The Court turned to a fairly unsatisfying source to break the tie: the title of the 1947 bill from which Section 42-6-12 was codified. That title, which was almost as long as the statute itself and no less confusing, was: “An Act Giving the Consent of the State of New Mexico to Be Sued Respecting the Adjudication or Foreclosure of Any Lien Against Real or Personal Property Against Which the State Holds or Claims a Lien: Providing the Procedure Therefor and the Nature of the Relief That May Be Granted.”
The Court believed that the title “clarifie[d] the legislative intent to create a limited waiver of immunity.” That, combined with a 1958 case that had determined the statute did not apply more broadly to all quiet title lawsuits, led the Court to agree with the counties that Section 46-6-12 was a narrow waiver of immunity.
Though apparently reluctant to do so, the Court affirmed the court of appeals opinion. Plaintiffs have no way to clear their titles, a solution, if any, must come from the legislature.
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