Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Delaware D.C. Civil No. 86-280.
Weis, Greenberg and Aldisert, Circuit Judges.
In this case, a federal agency -- assignee of a note --filed suit after the federal statute of limitations had lapsed but within the time allowed by state law. The district court entered summary judgment against the agency. We hold that in pursuing a viable claim, a federal agency is bound by the terms of the federal statute of limitations, which may not be lengthened or shortened by a state enactment. Accordingly, the judgment will be affirmed.
The facts in this case are few and uncomplicated. Defendants executed a note in favor of the Farmer's Bank of the State of Delaware on February 18, 1975. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation entered into an open bank assistance transaction with the Farmer's Bank and, on October 13, 1976, received an assignment of the note. The FDIC filed suit on the defendants' unpaid note on June 20, 1986, almost ten years after the assignment and more than eleven years after the default which occurred on May 1, 1975 [Text Deleted by Court Emendation].
The district court acknowledged that under Delaware law a note under seal -- such as the one here -- is governed by a twenty-year statute of limitations. Under state law, therefore, the FDIC's suit had been timely filed. The court held, however, that the federal agency was subject to the six-year statute of limitations enacted by Congress, codified at 28 U.S.C. § 2415(a). As a result the action was barred, whether the limitations period began to run on the date default occurred while in the hands of the FDIC's assignor or from the date of assignment of the cause of action to the FDIC.
On appeal the FDIC contends that, because a private party assignee would enjoy the benefits of the longer state statute of limitations, a federal agency should receive no lesser consideration. The FDIC also argues that the note, being under seal, falls outside the ambit of the federal statute. Defendants assert that the latter point was not pressed in the district court and that, in any event, the plain language of the statute refutes the FDIC's arguments.
Two questions are before us. First, what is the appropriate period of limitations? Second, when does it begin?
Section 2415(a) reads: "every action for money damages brought by the United States or an officer or agency thereof which is founded upon any contract express or implied in law or fact, shall be barred unless the complaint is filed within six years after the right of action accrues . . . ." 28 U.S.C. § 2415(a) (1982).
This statute of limitations was enacted in 1966, Pub. L. No. 89-505, 80 Stat. 304. In its report on the legislation, the Senate Judiciary Committee observed that many contract and tort claims asserted by the government are "almost indistinguishable" from those made by private individuals against the government. The Committee believed, therefore, that "it is only right that the law should provide a period of time within which the Government must bring suit on claims just as it now does as to claims of private individuals." S. Rep. No. 1328, 89th Cong., 2d Sess., reprinted in 1966 U.S. Code Cong. & Admin. News 2502, 2503.
The legislation sought to "provide a fair procedure which would have the effect of ending the possibility of contracts litigation after a fixed period." Id. at 2508. The government would "be barred from asserting old and stale claims in the courts and the necessity for the early assertion of claims will require increased efficiency in Government claims proceedings." Id. at 2509. Although aware that jurisdictions had adopted both longer and shorter periods, Congress chose a six-year limitation for contracts, the one typical of most states.
Before adoption of section 2415, the Supreme Court had held that a federal agency was "not bound by state statutes of limitation or subject to the defense of laches in enforcing its rights." United States v. Summerlin, 310 U.S. 414, 416, 84 L. Ed. 1283, 60 S. Ct. 1019 (1940). The case at hand, however, implicates the reverse side of the coin -- the federal statute, unlike its state law counterpart, would bar the suit. The FDIC argues that it stands in the shoes of its assignor and thus should be accorded corresponding rights, including the benefit of the state statute of limitations.
Presented with an issue of statutory construction, we look first to the text of the legislation itself. See Albert v. Abramson's Enterprises, Inc., 790 F.2d 380 (3d Cir. 1986). The clear and unambiguous wording states that the United States must bring any contractual claim within six years of its accrual. The statute contains no reference to the effect of state law on the statute of limitations, either to enlarge or to shorten the prescribed time. Nor does the statute furnish any basis for ...