Case preview: When does a statutory “judgment bar” stop lawsuits towards federal officers for constitutional violations?

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Symposium: A close look at Barrett’s rulings on qualified immunity

Posted on November 6th, 2020 at 5:30 pm by Daniel Harawa

Twenty-one-year-old college student James King was walking between his summer jobs one afternoon. While walking, he was approached by two plainclothes officers, Douglas Brownback and Todd Allen, assigned to a fugitive FBI task force in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Brownback and Allen were looking for a home invasion suspect. They didn’t have a clear or current picture of the suspect, but they knew he was a 26 year old white male between 5 feet 10 inches and 6 feet 3 inches who wore glasses and apparently he was shopping around the same time every day Soda from the same gas station. Unfortunately for King, he fitted the general description and was walking near the gas station, so Brownback and Allen decided to stop him.

While King initially indulged himself to a standstill after spying on badges hanging around the officers’ necks, King asked if he had been ambushed and tried to run away when the officers pulled his wallet out of his pocket. The officers grabbed him on the ground, and when King struggled, they choked him and hit him repeatedly in the head, causing a bystander to tell the 911 driver that the officers were “killing this man.” As it turned out, King wasn’t the suspect. And when the state of Michigan prosecuted King for resisting the arrest, a jury acquitted him of all charges.

King sued the United States under the Federal Torts Claims Act, alleging the officers committed a range of criminal offenses – the legal term used to describe illegal acts that result in injury and give the injured individual the right to file a civil lawsuit under state law. He also sued officers under Bivens against six unidentified named agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a landmark 1971 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that individuals can sue federal officials for violating their constitutional rights.

Congress passed the FTCA in 1946 out of “a feeling that the government should assume an obligation to pay damages for the misconduct of workers in the performance of their jobs”. Section 1346 (b) (1) of the FTCA provides for damages suits against the United States for certain civil misconducts by government employees acting in their field of employment. Indeed, an action can be brought “in the circumstances in which, if it were a private individual, the United States would be liable to the applicant under the law of the place where the act or omission took place”. In other words, the FTCA allows plaintiffs to pursue criminal claims against the United States government under state law in federal court.

Importantly, Section 2676 of the FTCA includes what is known as a “judgment bar” that is designed to prevent duplicate claims from a single event. It provides that a “judgment” in an FTCA lawsuit will be “a total impediment to any action by the applicant on the same subject matter against the government employee whose act or omission gave rise to the claim”.

The district court dismissed King’s FTCA claims, stating that King was not making viable tort claims in Michigan and therefore had no jurisdiction. The district court also dismissed the Bivens claims, ruling that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.

Upon appeal to the US Circuit 6 Court of Appeals, King decided not to pursue the FTCA claims. He just wanted to respond to the Bivens claims. Officials argued that the FTCA bar association was not in any further pursuit of the Bivens claims. A split panel of the 6th Circuit had a different opinion and was of the opinion that the dismissal of an FTCA complaint due to lack of factual jurisdiction does not constitute the “disposition in the matter” which the judgment implies. The court then concluded that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity from the Bivens claims. The federal government asked the Supreme Court to look into the case, and in March the judges agreed.

The Brownback v King case, which will be debated Monday, calls on the Supreme Court to determine the scope of the FTCA’s ruling. The court must choose between dueling text-based interpretations of the FTCA and how common law principles that limit the ability to make a claim in court feed into the proper interpretation of the text.

In short, the Attorney General argues that under the text of the FTCA, King’s Bivens claims are excluded. The SG contends that the FTCA judgment bar applies because the Bivens claims involve the same officials as the rejected FTCA claims and “are based on the same underlying facts.” The SG says the federal government’s interpretation of the ruling remains true to the overall goal of Congress to pass the FTCA to avoid duplicate litigation.

For his part, King also examines the text of the FTCA, but argues that the judgment bar does not apply as it only applies to “acts” – that is, separate claims, not claims within the same suit – and to “judgments” – that is, decisions on the merits , no dismissals for judicial reasons. King also argues that his reading of the FTCA is in line with the intention of Congress, as accepting the government’s interpretation would encourage litigants to sue federal employees first before seeking damages against the United States, resulting in a very double litigation that the government fears.

King is supported by members of Congress, law professors, and groups from across the ideological spectrum of Amicus. A report submitted by the Cato Institute, which focuses on the effects of the case on site, deserves special mention. Cato argues that the government’s broad interpretation of the FTCA’s ruling will “result in less accountability for a large portion of the law enforcement agencies – federal, state, and local – who police Americans every day.” Cato points out that federal law enforcement plays a muscular role in “frontline policing,” particularly noting that federal officials have reacted with increasing force to recent protests against racial justice. It will be interesting to see if that concern comes to the fore at a hearing, especially given that the court has taken Bivens action in recent years.

Posted in Brownback v. King, Featured, Merits Cases

Recommended citation:
Daniel Harawa, Case Preview: When Does a Statutory “Judgment Bar” Prevent Lawsuits Against Federal Officials For Violations Of The Constitution?
SCOTUSblog (November 6, 2020, 5.30 p.m.), https://www.scotusblog.com/2020/11/case-preview-when-does-a-statutory-judgement-bar-prevent-lawsuits-against-federal -offiziere- for-unconstitutional /