Unanimous Court Rules FTCA Bars Suit Against Federal Officers

In Brownback v. King,592 U. S. ____ (2021), the Supreme Court ruled that the Federal Tort Claims Act barred school student James King’s claims of police brutality. The Court unanimously held that the district court’s dismissal of all King’s claims under the FTCA triggered the”ruling bar” at 28 U.S.C. § 2676 and precluded him from raising separate claims under Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971) on charm.

Facts of the Case

The FCTA allows a plaintiff to deliver certain state-law tort claims against the United States for torts committed by federal employees acting within the scope of their work, assuming that the plaintiff states six statutory aspects of an actionable claim. The FCTA’s”conclusion bar” gives that any ruling in an FTCA lawsuit”shall constitute a complete bar to any action by the claimant, by reason of the exact subject matter, against the employee of the government whose act or omission gave rise to the promise.”

James King resisted the United States under the FTCA after a vicious encounter with Todd Allen and Douglas Brownback, members of a national task force who dared King to get a fugitive. In addition, he resisted the officers separately under the suggested cause of action accepted by Bivens. The District Court dismissed his FTCA claims, claiming that the Government was resistant because the officers were entitled to qualified immunity under Michigan law, or in the alternative, that King failed to state a valid claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The court also dismissed King’s Bivens claims, ruling that the officers were eligible for national qualified immunity. King appealed only the dismissal of his Bivens claims.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the District Court’s dismissal of both King’s FTCA claims failed to activate the decision bar to obstruct his Bivens claims. According to the appeals court, because”the district court disregarded [King]’s FTCA claim[s] for absence of subject-matter jurisdiction” when it decided that he hadn’t said a viable claim and so”did not reach the merits.”

Supreme Court’s Decision

The Supreme Court unanimously reversed. “We conclude that the District Court’s order was a ruling about the merits of the FTCA claims that may activate the ruling bar,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote on behalf of the Court. “The conclusion of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed”

In reaching its decision, the Court highlighted that similar to common-law claim preclusion, the ruling bar requires a final decision”on the merits” In this case, it concluded that the District Court’s inventory ruling dismissing King’s FTCA claims”hinged on a quintessential worth conclusion: if the undisputed facts demonstrated all the components of King’s FTCA claims” It further maintained that the court’s alternative Rule 12(b)(6 ) ) holding also passed on the material of King’s FTCA claims, as a 12(b)(6) ruling concerns the values.

Since Justice Thomas explainedthe”one complication in this case is that it involves overlapping concerns regarding sovereign immunity and subject-matter jurisdiction.” In passing on King’s FTCA claimsthe District Court also decided that it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over those claims. While 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 jurisdiction, it mentioned that in the unique circumstance of the FTCA, all facets of a meritorious claim will also be jurisdictional.

Thus, although a plaintiff need not establish a §1346(b)(1) jurisdictional element to get a court to keep subject-matter jurisdiction over his claim, because King’s FTCA claims neglected to survive Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the court also was deprived of subject-matter jurisdiction. “Usually, a court cannot issue a ruling on the merits’when it has no jurisdiction’ 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 where, as here, pleading a claim and pleading jurisdiction fully overlap, a ruling that the court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction may concurrently be a decision on the merits that triggers the judgment bar.”

In footnote, Justice Thomas noted that King might assert that the ruling bar does not apply in cases like his at which the tort claims under the FTCA and the related non-FTCA claims are brought in a single lawsuit. The Court did not deal with the issue because it was not addressed at the Sixth Circuit’s opinion. In a concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor highlighted that the question of if the FTCA judgment bar covers claims brought in exactly the identical actions warrants consideration.
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