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Gonzalez v. Limon

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

June 7, 2019

DOLORES MARGARITA GONZALEZ, Plaintiff - Appellant
v.
NORMA A. LIMON, Harlingen Field Office Director, Citizenship and Immigration; UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendants - Appellees

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas

          Before HIGGINBOTHAM, SMITH, and GRAVES, Circuit Judges.

          PATRICK E. HIGGINBOTHAM, Circuit Judge:

         The United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) denied Dolores Margarita Gonzalez a certificate of citizenship, first in 2008, then again in 2016. Gonzalez challenged only the agency's 2016 denial. The Government argues Gonzalez's challenge is untimely, that the relevant five-year limitations period runs from the first of her denials. Finding Gonzalez's action untimely, we affirm the district court's dismissal of her claim.

         I.

         Gonzalez was born in 1962 in Tamaulipas, Mexico to an American father and a Mexican mother. Her parents were not married at the time, but entered a putative marriage in 1972. In 1983, Gonzalez filed an application for a certificate of citizenship with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). In 1984, INS determined that Gonzalez was legitimated when her parents were married, and that she thereby acquired United States citizenship through her father. The agency issued Gonzalez a certificate of citizenship.

         In 1991, however, INS notified Gonzalez it intended to cancel the certificate of citizenship issued seven years earlier. In the intervening years, INS had discovered that Gonzalez's father "had an unterminated marriage when he married [her] mother . . . rendering the [latter] marriage . . . invalid," such that Gonzalez was not legitimated. The agency provided an opportunity for Gonzalez to rebut the finding, but she did not respond. Gonzalez claims she never received the 1991 letter.

         No action was taken for fifteen years. Then, in 2006, INS's successor agency, USCIS, issued an order for the surrender and cancellation of Gonzalez's certificate of citizenship. Gonzalez surrendered her certificate and immediately filed a motion for reconsideration with the agency. In this motion, Gonzalez argued the cancellation was procedurally defective: she had not received INS's 1991 letter and therefore was denied an opportunity to contest its findings. She also argued she had been properly legitimated under the applicable Mexican law as the child of parents who entered a putative marriage in good faith. On September 2, 2008, USCIS determined that its cancellation decision was proper, and dismissed Gonzalez's motion (the "2008 Denial"). Gonzalez did not pursue an administrative appeal.

         On May 28, 2014, Gonzalez filed a new motion with USCIS, advancing a new basis for the reconsideration of USCIS's decision, namely that she had been legitimated by her father's sworn acknowledgement of paternity. Gonzalez attached evidence in support of this argument: Social Security records indicating the receipt of benefits as her father's recognized daughter and a copy of a certificate of United States citizenship issued to her sister in 2013. On November 14, 2014, USCIS determined that Gonzalez's evidence failed to establish that she had been legitimated, and dismissed the motion. Gonzalez pursued an administrative appeal, and on January 29, 2016, the Administrative Appeals Office affirmed the agency's refusal to reopen her case ("the 2016 Denial").

         On April 5, 2017, Gonzalez filed the instant action against the USCIS Harlingen Field Office Director as well as the United States (collectively "the Government") in the Southern District of Texas. Gonzalez alleged that, by cancelling her certificate of citizenship and refusing to reconsider that decision, USCIS unlawfully denied her a right or privilege claimed as a national of the United States. She sought a declaration of her citizenship under 8 U.S.C. § 1503(a), as well as an injunction "enjoining [USCIS] from not re-issuing" her certificate of citizenship.

         The Government moved to dismiss the action for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, arguing the suit was barred by Section 1503(a)'s limitations provision because Gonzalez failed to bring her claim within five years of the 2008 Denial-the 2016 Denial did not restart the limitations clock. In addition, Gonzalez failed to exhaust administrative remedies with respect to the 2008 Denial.

         The district court granted the Government's motion and dismissed Gonzalez's action for lack of jurisdiction. Finding the text of the statute "silent on whether the statute of limitation commences after the first or the most recent final administrative denial," the district court held that Section 1503(a) includes an implicit limitation to the initial administrative denial. In the absence of such a limitation, Gonzalez could restart the limitations period by prompting duplicative denials-the "five-year requirement [would be] meaningless." The initial denial was the 2008 Denial, "[t]hus the five-year statute of limitations period commenced in 2008, and expired in 2013." The 2016 Denial did "not modify the expiration of the five-year statute of limitations." Additionally, the district court held that Gonzalez failed to exhaust administrative remedies with respect to the 2008 Denial. This appeal followed.[1]

         II.

         "Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. They possess only that power authorized by Constitution and statute, which is not to be expanded by judicial decree."[2] We review jurisdictional issues de novo.[3] The court "must presume that a suit lies outside [its] limited jurisdiction, and the burden of establishing federal jurisdiction rests on the party seeking the federal forum."[4]The court asks whether the plaintiff ...


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