U.S. Government Files Motion to Dismiss Santa Monica Airport Lawsuit

 - January 11, 2014, 3:05 PM
The U.S. government has filed a motion to defend FAA against a legal action launched by the city of Santa Monica over control of its airport. Photo by Matt Thurber

The U.S. government has filed a response to a lawsuit filed against it by the Californian city of Santa Monica, which is seeking to establish its right to control future use of the Santa Monica Airport property.” The government’s response is a motion filed on Friday to dismiss a case filed in a U.S. District Court on October 31, 2013.

The city believes that it did not relinquish title to the airport when it leased the property to the U.S. government during World War II, when Douglas Aircraft produced thousands of airplanes at the airfield for the war effort. During its leasehold, the federal government substantially improved the airport, building the single runway, the control tower and other infrastructure. When the government relinquished the leasehold on August 10, 1948, it stipulated that the property must remain an airport, and that if Santa Monica violates any part of that agreement, the property reverts to the government.

In the 1948 instrument of transfer, the city was bound by the following condition: “That no property transferred by this instrument shall be used, leased, sold, salvaged, or disposed of by [the City] for other than airport purposes without the written consent of the Civil Aeronautics Administrator [predecessor of the FAA].”

The Santa Monica complaint seeks both a declaration that clear title to the airport property belongs to the city and that the requirement to keep operating the land as an airport is unconstitutional (“a taking without just compensation”).

The counter motion lays out the federal government’s case, pointing out that in two separate legal opinions, the city was forced to acknowledge that it could not decide to change the terms of the instrument of transfer. According to the January 10 motion, “On January 23, 1962, the city attorney issued a legal opinion as to whether the city was still bound by the conditions, reservations, and restrictions contained in the 1948 instrument of transfer in 1962.” And after reviewing the applicable documents and other factors, “the city attorney found that the various requirements and covenants of the 1948 instrument of transfer and the terms of a project with the government compel the conclusion that the city must continue to operate the airport, and that the city cannot legally unilaterally, on its own motion, abandon the use of the Santa Monica Airport as an airport.”

In the second opinion, delivered in 1975, the California attorney general concluded that, “These contractual agreements when considered as a whole and in light of the overall pattern of extensive and extending obligation, leads to the conclusion that the city may not at the present time cease using the airport for airport purposes.”

The new motion also addresses the Fifth Amendment “takings” claim, arguing that the federal court in which Santa Monica filed its lawsuit is not qualified to adjudicate on the matter. “This court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over plaintiff’s Fifth Amendment ‘takings claim’ because plaintiff alleges a takings claim in excess of $10,000,” said the government motion. “The Tucker Act…vests exclusive subject matter jurisdiction over constitutional claims exceeding $10,000 with the Court of Federal Claims.”

According to the new motion filed on behalf of the FAA, the takings claim also is not “ripe” because the federal government has not actually tried to take possession of the airport property. “By the terms of the 1948 agreement, there is an ‘option’ that the United States can exercise to obtain title and right of possession,” argues the motion. “This option only arises if the ‘airport property’ is not used as an airport. Not only has that not occurred and thereby raised the availability of that ‘option,’ defendants have not taken any final agency action to exercise the option to effect the reversion. The city also has not demonstrated any economic loss. “[T]he Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment…provides that private property shall not ‘be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

The U.S. government filing added: “Furthermore, the 1948 instrument specifically provides that the property is to be used ‘for public airport purposes for the use and benefit of the public.’ Consequently, the city cannot reasonably allege that the federal government has taken–or will take–action contrary to its expectations. The city was not only well aware that the transfer was being made pursuant to the SPA [Surplus Property Act] so that it would be used as an airport, it was also fully aware that if the property ceases to be run as an airport, the possibility exists that the United States could exercise an option to take title.”

The original complaint filed by the city of Santa Monica against the FAA is a quiet title action, which is a tool commonly used for boundary disputes between property owners. But the government’s motion notes that: “In any event, the city cannot sue under the Tenth Amendment to ‘quiet title’ to the airport property, as the QTA is the exclusive means to challenge the government’s title to real property. In addition, the United States is not ‘commandeering’ the city to do anything. The United States only claims that the 1948 instrument of transfer gives it an option to exercise some rights with regard to the airport property in the event that the city decides not to continue complying with the conditions and restrictions that it agreed to comply with under that instrument. The city has not stopped complying with these conditions and restrictions, so the city’s suit is not ripe.”