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 college student James King’s claims of police brutality. 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 precluded him from raising separate claims under Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971) on appeal.
Facts of the Case
The FCTA allows a plaintiff to bring certain state-law tort claims against the United States for torts committed by federal employees acting within the scope of their employment, provided that the plaintiff alleges six statutory elements of an actionable claim. The FCTA’s “judgment bar” provides that any judgment in an FTCA lawsuit “shall constitute a complete bar to any action by the claimant, by reason of the same subject matter, against the employee of the government whose act or omission gave rise to the claim.”
James King sued 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 sued the officers individually under the implied cause of action recognized by Bivens. The District Court dismissed his FTCA claims, holding that the Government was immune 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 entitled to federal 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 King’s FTCA claims did not trigger the judgment bar to block his Bivens claims. According to the appeals court, because “the district court dismissed [King]’s FTCA claim[s] for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction” when it determined that he had not stated a viable claim and thus “did not reach the merits.”
Supreme Court’s Decision
The Supreme Court unanimously reversed. “We conclude that the District Court’s order was a judgment on the merits of the FTCA claims that can trigger the judgment bar,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote on behalf of the Court. “The judgment 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 judgment bar requires a final judgment “on the merits.” In this case, it concluded that the District Court’s summary ruling dismissing King’s FTCA claims “hinged on a quintessential merits decision: whether the undisputed facts established all the elements of King’s FTCA claims.” It further held that the court’s alternative Rule 12(b)(6) holding also passed on the substance of King’s FTCA claims, as a 12(b)(6) ruling concerns the merits.
As Justice Thomas explained, the “one complication in this case is that it involves overlapping questions about sovereign immunity and subject-matter jurisdiction.” In passing on King’s FTCA claims, the District Court also determined 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) generally does not deprive a federal court of subject-matter jurisdiction, it noted that in the unique context of the FTCA, all elements of a meritorious claim are also jurisdictional.
Thus, even though a plaintiff need not prove a §1346(b)(1) jurisdictional element for a court to maintain subject-matter jurisdiction over his claim, because King’s FTCA claims failed to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the court also was deprived of subject-matter jurisdiction. “Ordinarily, 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 entirely overlap, a ruling that the court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction may simultaneously be a judgment on the merits that triggers the judgment 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 related non-FTCA claims are brought in a single lawsuit. The Court did not address the issue because it was not addressed in the Sixth Circuit’s opinion. In a concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor emphasized that the question of whether the FTCA judgment bar covers claims brought in the same action warrants consideration.
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