Court Finds That BLM Must Return Mining Maintenance Fees

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A federal court required the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to return annual maintenance fees which it had improperly charged to a holder of 87 lode mining claims in Idaho.  In 2011, Congress changed the applicable law so that pre-1993 claim holders no longer had to pay claim maintenance fees, but instead had to complete a minimum amount of assessment work.  However, BLM disregarded the change in the law and issued regulations that required pre-1993 claim holders to continue paying maintenance fees to the government.  The government asserted various defenses to avoid being liable for its clearly erroneous regulations, but the court rejected each of these.

The government first argued that the plaintiff had voluntarily paid the fees and therefore the voluntary payment doctrine applied and prevented the plaintiff from filing a claim that the government had illegally exacted the fees.  The court rejected this argument, pointing out that there was no voluntary payment and the doctrine did not apply where the government demanded the payment in violation of a statute intended to benefit the claim holder.  The government also argued that the plaintiff would get a windfall because, if it had not paid the fees, it should have completed assessment work but did not.  The court held that, when the government acts beyond its statutory authority to collect money, it is irrelevant if a plaintiff obtains a windfall when it recoups the erroneously paid funds.

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