Argument preview: When does a court’s dismissal of a prisoner’s Federal Tort Claims Act case foreclose a parallel Bivens claim?

Federal prisoners who seek redress for civil rights violations face an infamous thicket of rules, regulations, statutes, and case law. Prisoners have to navigate often-complicated prison rules and regulations to file an administrative claim in the first instance. They have to check to see that they have exhausted all administrative options before filing in federal court. And they have to choose and plead their federal claims carefully. (And that’s just the beginning.) This thicket sometimes seems especially designed only to thwart prisoners’ claims entirely, creating an access barrier that restricts and even prohibits a federal prisoner from obtaining a remedy for a civil rights violation.

On the other hand, this thicket serves some important governmental interests. It helps ensure that a prison itself gets a first crack at providing relief to a prisoner. It helps narrow the issues and streamline a case for the federal court. And it ensures that a federal employee and the government itself need only defend against a single lawsuit arising out of the same incident.

This case tests the push and pull between the rules in this thicket. And while the case deals in the technical and sometimes complicated interplay between different statutory provisions, it really comes down to this simple question: When a federal prisoner seeks redress for a civil rights violation, does federal law favor relatively more open access to the courts, or does it favor protection of federal employees and the government?

The facts

In October 2008, Walter Himmelreich was serving a 240-month sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Elkton, Ohio, for the production of child pornography. Himmelreich’s crime didn’t sit well with another inmate at Elkton, a prisoner who was housed in the Special Housing Unit because of his disciplinary violations. That prisoner told officials that he was “not able to live with pedophiles” and that if he were released into the general compound he “will smash a pedophile.” Just four days after this prisoner made these claims, prison officials nevertheless transferred him back into the general compound where, perhaps unsurprisingly, he assaulted Himmelreich. Himmelreich suffered serious injuries, including internal bruising, external injuries, permanent ringing in the ears, persistent headaches, and a pinched nerve.

Himmelreich filed and lost an administrative tort claim. He then filed two separate suits in federal court – one under the Federal Tort Claims Act, and the other under Bivens, which allows a plaintiff to sue a federal officer for a constitutional violation, in this case the Eighth Amendment. The court dismissed the FTCA case and then the Bivens case. Himmelreich appealed the Bivens ruling, and after the case went up to the Sixth Circuit twice (where Himmelreich won both times), this question is now before the Court: Does a court’s dismissal of a prisoner’s FTCA case under the FTCA’s “discretionary act” exception foreclose that prisoner’s separate Bivens claim?

The law

The case sits at the intersection of four provisions of the FTCA. The first is the FTCA’s jurisdictional provision, Section 1346(b). This provision waives the United States’s sovereign immunity and grants district courts “exclusive jurisdiction” over claims against the United States for torts by government employees arising out the scope of their employment. In practice, this section operates like ordinary tort claims against a private employer who concedes respondeat superior liability – that is, liability on behalf of its employees for acts within the scope of their employment.

The second provision is the FTCA’s list of exceptions in Section 2680. This provision contains several categories of claims to which the FTCA does not apply. One of those categories encompasses what is commonly known as the “discretionary function” exception: any claim based on a federal employee’s “exercise or performance or the failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty.”

The third is the FTCA’s judgment bar in Section 2676. The judgment bar provides that:

The judgment in any action under [the jurisdictional provision] shall constitute a complete bar to any action by the claimant, by reason of the same subject mater, against the employee of the government whose act or omission gave rise to the claim.

In practice, the judgment bar forecloses a plaintiff’s ability to pursue other kinds of claims against government employees arising from the same underlying incident. Congress enacted the judgment bar to protect federal employees and the government itself from multiple suits by the same plaintiff for the same injuries. At the time of its adoption, this provision served primarily to bar parallel state-law tort claims filed against federal employees in state court. But since 1971, when the Court recognized a federal constitutional-tort cause of action against federal employees in Bivens, the judgment bar has also foreclosed a parallel Bivens cause of action.

The final provision is the Westfall Act. That act, enacted in 1988, after the FTCA, makes the FTCA the “exclusive” remedy for a tort claim against a federal employee. It also precludes state-tort claims against federal employees and provides for the prompt substitution of the United States for the employee-defendants in those state-tort cases. Because the Westfall Act bars state-tort suits directly against federal employees, the judgment bar now functions primarily to foreclose parallel federal Bivens claims.

The case

After Himmelreich filed his first case (the FTCA case), the federal government moved to dismiss pursuant to the FTCA’s discretionary-function exception. The court granted the motion, noting that Section 2680 is an exception to the FTCA’s general waiver of sovereign immunity, and that the court therefore “lacks subject matter jurisdiction over acts falling within the discretionary function exception.” The court issued a document titled “JUDGMENT ENTRY” in which the court “ORDERED, ADJUDGED and DECREED” that the case was dismissed.

The court then dismissed Himmelreich’s second case, the Bivens case, for failure to state a claim. The Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded. The district court again dismissed the case, this time based on two alternative theories: Himmelreich’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies and the FTCA’s judgment bar. The Sixth Circuit again reversed, ruling that Himmelreich’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies was excused (an issue that is not now before the Court), and that the judgment bar did not foreclose Himmelreich’s Bivens claim. As to the latter, the court of appeals said that the district court’s dismissal under Section 2680 amounted to a dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and that it was therefore not a “judgment” subject to the judgment bar. This is the question now before the Court.

The arguments

The government argues that the district court’s dismissal of Himmelreich’s FTCA case was a “judgment” under the FTCA judgment bar and thus forecloses his Bivens claim against the individual prison officials. The government says that this interpretation comports with the plain definition of the term, Congress’s use of the term in other portions of the FTCA, and the congressional purpose of the judgment bar. The government contends that Himmelreich is wrong to argue that the judgment bar applies only to the subset of judgments that is capable of having some preclusive effect under the principle of res judicata. According to the government, the term “judgment” is nowhere confined only to judgments having preclusive effect. But even if the term “judgment” is so confined, the government claims that the district court’s dismissal under Section 2680 is still a “judgment” under the judgment bar. That’s because Section 2680 imposes “substantive limitations” on FTCA liability, which makes the dismissal a ruling “on the merits” and therefore (under claim preclusion) precludes another case raising the same claim. It’s also because the district court actually determined that Section 2680 applies, and so (under issue preclusion) the ruling precludes Himmelreich from relitigating the issue. (This argument hinges on Himmelreich’s claim that the judgment bar extends the same res judicata preclusive effect that the government has under the FTCA to a government employee.) Finally, the government says that Himmelreich is wrong to argue that the judgment bar does not apply to an FTCA action dismissed under Section 2680 (because the judgment bar covers any FTCA action), and that he is wrong to claim that the introductory language to Section 2680 prevents Section 2680 dismissals from triggering the judgment bar (because the Court has ruled otherwise in a related context).

Himmelreich counters that the judgment bar does not foreclose his Bivens claim against the individual officials. As an initial matter, he says that the judgment bar does not even apply here, because the plain terms of Section 2680 say that the FTCA’s other provisions, including the judgment bar, “shall not apply” to the categories of exceptions in Section 2680. It’s also because the judgment bar is only triggered by a “judgment” in a suit “under section 1346(b).” But he says that Section 1346(b) does not apply to the “claims” enumerated in Section 2680, so that his FTCA action was not even “under” Section 1346(b) in the first place.

Himmelreich argues next that the court’s dismissal for lack of jurisdiction is not a “judgment” under the judgment bar, because the court’s dismissal carries no res judicata effect (and thus does not shield the government employee from suit). Finally, Himmelreich claims that the government’s approach would lead to absurdities, including lower courts blocking Bivens claims based on technical defects (that result in dismissal) in a plaintiff’s FTCA case, encouraging personal-capacity lawsuits (before FTCA claims, which the FTCA was designed, in part, to prevent), and depriving plaintiffs of a remedy for civil rights violations.

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In the end – as technical and complicated as this thicket can be – the bottom line is pretty simple: the Court will either favor more access to justice for federal prisoners who seek redress for civil rights violations, or it will favor the government’s interest in protecting its employees from lawsuits.

Posted in: Featured, Merits Cases

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