Unanimous Court Rules FTCA Bars Suit Against Federal Officers

The Court unanimously held that the district court’s dismissal of King’s claims under the FTCA triggered the”judgment bar” in 28 U.S.C. § 2676 and prevent him from raising separate claims under Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971) on charm.

Facts of this Case

The FCTA allows a plaintiff to bring specific state-law tort claims from the USA for torts committed by federal employees acting within the scope of their employment, assuming the plaintiff stated six statutory aspects of an actionable claim. The FCTA’s”conclusion bar” provides that any judgment in an FTCA suit”shall constitute a complete bar to any action by the plaintiff, with the same subject matter, against the employee of the government whose act or omission gave rise to this promise.”

James King resisted the United States under the FTCA after a violent encounter with Todd Allen and Douglas Brownback, members of a federal task force who mistook King for a fugitive. He also resisted the officers separately under the implied cause of action recognized by Bivens. The District Court dismissed his FTCA claims, holding that the Government was immune since the officers were entitled to qualified immunity under Michigan law, or instead, that King failed to state a valid claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The court dismissed King’s Bivens claims, ruling that the officers were eligible for federal qualified immunity. King appealed just the dismissal of his Bivens claims.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the District Court’s dismissal of King’s FTCA claims did not activate the decision bar to obstruct his Bivens claims. As stated by the appeals court, since”the district court disregarded [King]’s FTCA claim[s] for absence of subject-matter authority” as it decided that he had not said a viable claim and so”did not reach the values”

Supreme Court’s Decision

The Supreme Court unanimously reversed. “We conclude the District Court’s order was a judgment on the merits of the FTCA claims that can activate the decision bar,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote on behalf of this Court.

In reaching its decision, the Court emphasized that like common-law claim preclusion, the judgment bar requires a last decision”on the merits.” In cases like this, it concluded that the District Court’s inventory ruling dismissing King’s FTCA claims”hinged on a quintessential merits conclusion: whether the undisputed facts created all the elements of King’s FTCA claims.” It further maintained that the court’s alternative Rule 12(b)(6 ) ) holding passed on the material of King’s FTCA claims, as a 12(b)(6) ruling concerns the merits.

As Justice Thomas explained, the”one drawback in this case is the fact that it involves overlapping questions regarding sovereign immunity and subject-matter jurisdiction.” In passing on King’s FTCA claims, the District Court also decided that it lacked subject-matter authority over those claims. Though the Court acknowledged that a plaintiff’s failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6) does not deprive a federal court of subject-matter authority, it noted that in the unique circumstance of the FTCA, all facets of a meritorious claim will also be jurisdictional.

Thus, even though a plaintiff shouldn’t prove a §1346(b)(1) jurisdictional element for a court to keep subject-matter authority over his claim, since King’s FTCA claims neglected to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the court was deprived of subject-matter authority. “Generally, a court cannot issue a ruling on the merits’as it has no authority’ because to do so is, by very definition, for a court to act ultra vires,” Justice Thomas wrote, citing Steel Co. v. Citizens for Better Environment, 523 U.S. 83 (1998). “But in the end, as here, pleading a claim and also pleading authority fully overlap, a ruling that the court lacks subject-matter authority may concurrently be a judgment on the merits that triggers the decision bar.”

In footnote, Justice Thomas noted that King could argue that the judgment bar does not apply in cases like his where the tort claims under the FTCA and the associated non-FTCA claims are brought in one lawsuit. The Court did not deal with the issue since it wasn’t addressed in the Sixth Circuit’s opinion. In a concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor highlighted the question of whether the FTCA judgment bar covers claims caused the exact same activity warrants consideration.
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