Unanimous court docket points restricted ruling on judgment bar in Federal Tort Claims Act

front facade of Supreme Court illuminated in winter sun


By Daniel Harawa

at 11:29 pm

The Supreme Court passed a narrow verdict on a man who alleged two federal officials violated his rights, but the court did not fully close the door on his lawsuit. (Guyyoung1966 via Wikimedia Commons)

A unanimous Supreme Court on Thursday issued a limited ruling on the federal tort law ruling.

The Brownback v. King began in 2014 when FBI task force officers in Grand Rapids, Michigan assaulted, choked, and hit college student James King in the head after mistaking him for a fugitive. King sued the United States under the FTCA, which allows individuals to bring state crime claims against the federal government. King also made claims against the officials under Bivens against Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which allows individuals to sue federal officials for violating their constitutional rights.

The district court dismissed King’s FTCA claims. The court ruled that a state criminal lawsuit was impracticable because Michigan law provides immunity for officials who do not act maliciously. (In a footnote, the Supreme Court clearly failed to express an opinion as to whether state immunities would apply in this context). The district court therefore concluded that it did not have jurisdiction over the FTCA claims. She dismissed the Bivens claims on grounds of qualified immunity.

On appeal, King only wanted to pursue the Bivens claims. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit had to decide whether the appeal could proceed in light of FTCA jurisdiction. The Judgment Freeze Act provides that a “judgment” in an FTCA lawsuit will “be a total obstacle 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 6th court ruled that the District Court’s dismissal in this case did not trigger the ruling barrier, based on the fact that a dismissal for lack of substantive jurisdiction was not a decision on the merits and therefore not a final judgment.

The Supreme Court unanimously reversed. In a statement from Judge Clarence Thomas, the court found that the parties agreed that “there must have been a final judgment on the matter to trigger the FTCA judgment bar”. The court therefore had to decide whether the dismissal of the district court in this case was indeed a final judgment.

The court ruled that it was. Thomas explained that “the judgment bar was designed against the background of the legal force doctrine”, and in order to trigger the legal force doctrine, a judgment must be “in the matter”. As it was understood back when Congress passed the FTCA, “a judgment is” on the merits “when the underlying decision” actually directly tells the content of a particular claim before the court. “Thomas argued that the” summary judgment District Court “The decision was based on a fundamental decision: whether the indisputable facts established all elements of King’s FTCA claims.”

Thomas noted the crease that, in the FTCA context, “the making of a claim and the making of the jurisdiction completely overlap”. Ultimately, however, he found this unimportant and came to the conclusion that “a decision that the court does not have material jurisdiction can also be a judgment on the matter that raises the judgment barrier”.

What is important is that the court did not determine whether the ruling actually prevented King from pursuing his Bivens claims. Despite this question, which took up much of the briefing, the court noted in a footnote that the 6th circuit did not address the arguments and that the Supreme Court “is a reviewing court, not at first sight”. Therefore, the court left it to the 6th circuit to determine how the judgment is to be applied in this case.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a consensus that strongly suggests that King’s Bivens’ claims are not excluded. In Sotomayor’s view, King’s argument that the judgment does not apply to different claims in the same lawsuit was probably the better argument given the text and purpose of the judgment. This issue deserves special attention in pre-trial detention, Sotomayor admonished, because “while the lower courts have ruled uncritically that the FTCA’s limit of judgment applies to claims made in the same lawsuit, there are reasons to question this conclusion.”

King’s case will see another day as he tries to hold the officers who attacked him accountable.