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Shoulders v. United States Department of Agriculture

decided: June 21, 1989.

CHRISTINE J. SHOULDERS, T/A SHOULDERS MARKET, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, FOOD AND NUTRITION SERVICE, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, at Norfolk. Walter E. Hoffman, Senior District Judge. CA-88-269-N.

Ervin, Chief Judge, Chapman, Circuit Judge, and Doumar, United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Virginia, sitting by designation.

Author: Ervin

ERVIN, Chief Judge

Christine Shoulders, the proprietor of Shoulders Market, a Norfolk, Virginia, convenience store, filed suit to stay an administrative order disqualifying Shoulders*fn1 from participation in the federal food stamp program ("program"). Shoulders appears before us appealing from the dismissal of her action as untimely. We affirm.

I.

The United States Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service ("FNS") approved Shoulders for participation in the program on April 3, 1986. During late 1986 and early 1987, FNS agents shopped at Shoulders using food stamps, to see if Shoulders was accepting the stamps for items ineligible under the program Having satisfied itself that Shoulders had repeatedly accepted food stamps for ineligible items, the FNS decided to disqualify Shoulders from participating in the program for three years.

On January 15, 1988, the FNS mailed Shoulders a letter stating that its decision had been affirmed after agency review and that Shoulders must commence an action for judicial review, if she chose to do so, within thirty days of receipt of the letter.*fn2 Shoulders commenced her action on March 23, 1988, when it filed a petition and notice of application for stay of the FNS order in the Virginia Circuit Court for the City of Norfolk ("Norfolk").*fn3

Shoulders concedes that her action was untimely under § 2023(a) and § 279.10(a).

The FNS removed the action to federal district court on April 18, 1988. Shortly thereafter, the FNS moved to dismiss, alleging, among other grounds, that Shoulders' action was time-barred under § 2023(a). Shoulders' response was that her suit was timely under a Virginia statute that grants a continuance of right to state court litigants whose attorneys are, among other things, members of the Virginia General Assembly.*fn4 The district court heard argument and, concluding that § 30-5 could not extend § 2023(a)'s limitation period, dismissed Shoulders' action as untimely. It is this conclusion that Shoulders asks us to review.

II.

We believe the district court correctly analyzed the interplay between § 30-5 and § 2023(a), and properly concluded that the inflexible thirty-day period for filing provided by § 2023(a) trumps any longer period that § 30-5 may provide. The district court identified § 2023(a), the statute supporting its subject matter jurisdiction, as a conditional waiver of the United States' sovereign immunity, the condition being that aggrieved parties must commence suit within thirty days of notice of adverse FNS action. The law is clear that the courts must strictly construe and enforce such conditions in favor of the United States. See Block v. North Dakota, 461 U.S. 273, 287, 75 L. Ed. 2d 840, 103 S. Ct. 1811 (1983)("[When] waiver legislation contains a statute of limitations we must be careful not to interpret the [time-bar provision] in a manner that would 'extend the waiver beyond that which Congress intended'") (citation omitted).

This conclusion under Block perforce indicates that § 2023(a), read alone, does not allow extensions of time. The conflict between § 2023(a) and § 30-5 is thus unavoidable; from the fact of conflict follows the conclusion that § 2023(a)'s limitations period must prevail, under the Supremacy Clause, over § 30-5's longer period. See Felder v. Casey, 487 U.S. 131, 101 L. Ed. 2d 123, 138, 108 S. Ct. 2302 (1988); Free v. Bland, 369 U.S. 663, 666, 8 L. Ed. 2d 180, 82 S. Ct. 1089 (1962).

III.

Finding no fault in the district court's conclusion that the limitations period of § 2023(a) alone applies, and taking account of Shoulders' concession that her suit is untimely under that ...


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