- - Thursday, August 28, 2014

There is a reason so many citizens who reach the Supreme Court of the United States in their battles with the federal government and emerge to face reporters and their cameras are elderly, white-haired widows. Fighting the world’s largest law firm is like “Waiting for Godot,” but worse. Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play was fiction, but the ludicrous lengths to which federal lawyers go to avoid Judgment Day is all too real. Stanley K. Mann of Colorado, now 82, spent 20 years awaiting that day.

On Nov. 1, 1981, Mr. Mann and the Bureau of Land Management entered into a 10-year lease for geothermal resources — a clean, efficient renewable-energy source — on federal lands near Las Cruces, N.M. Wells capable of production in paying quantities were drilled, and Mr. Mann spent many years and more than $1 million to commercialize his discovery. Meanwhile, he paid annual royalties to Bureau of Land Management’s sister agency in the Department of the Interior, the Minerals Management Service.

In September 1989, Mr. Mann moved to California where he received mail, including mail forwarded from Colorado. Regarding his geothermal lease, he was in frequent telephone and written communication with the Bureau of Land Management and the Minerals Management Service and repeatedly advised both agencies of his address to ensure he received all correspondence. Nonetheless, on or about Nov. 23, 1993, the bureau sent him an undated document at a wrong address as a result of what was later discovered to be a data-keeping error by an unnamed employee. Not surprisingly, it was returned unclaimed. In 1994, the Bureau of Land Management canceled his lease. In 1996, Mr. Mann visited the bureau’s Las Cruces office and learned of the cancellation. His administrative appeal was denied.

In April 1998, Mr. Mann filed a breach of contract lawsuit against the United States for failing to provide him the notice required by federal law. However, in September 2002, the Court of Federal Claims sided with the BLM, finding that the agency’s general rules as to “constructive notice” trumped its specific geothermal regulations compelling “actual receipt of notice.” Mr. Mann appealed. On June 3, 2003, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held oral arguments. Just 24 days later, the three-judge panel reversed the ruling: The United States breached Mr. Mann’s lease by failing to send notice of a potential cancellation to his “last address of record.”

Mr. Mann was vindicated. Stunningly, documents that proved his case were in the federal government’s hands the entire time. Those documents showed that employees from one agency did not speak to their colleagues in a sister agency; that federal employees either did not or could not read the plain English of official documents; and that federal employees either did not know what the law and regulations provided or refused to do what they required. Worse yet, federal lawyers defending the Bureau of Land Management failed to provide a sworn affidavit from a single federal employee as to why the bureau sent the notice to the wrong address.

The Court of Federal Claims conducted a trial in November 2005 and completed posttrial briefing in March 2006. Mr. Mann argued he was owed “lost profits,” “reliance damages” or “restitution,” while federal lawyers asserted he was owed nothing. However, in April 2009, the court awarded him $869,501.52 in damages. In August 2009, he filed his bill of costs and an Equal Access to Justice Act application for attorneys’ fees and non-taxable expenses. Although the court awarded him in excess of $5,000 in costs in June of 2010, slightly less than what was billed, no order for the rest was issued. Finally, earlier this summer, after numerous pleas to the court that it act on his application, including a recent notice citing his advancing years and nearly two decades of seeking justice, the court awarded him nearly a third of a million dollars.

Godot has come for Mr. Mann, but thousands of other unhappy citizens still wait.

William Perry Pendley is president of Mountain States Legal Foundation and author of “Sagebrush Rebel: Reagan’s Battle With Environmental Extremists and Why It Matters Today” (Regnery, 2013).