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Today’s Opinion in Will v. Hallock

The Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Souter, unanimously ruled today that a refusal to apply the judgment bar of the Federal Tort Claims Act is not open to collateral appeal. The Court did not reach the question of whether the Second Circuit properly held that the FTCA judgment bar is not raised if the first suit is decided solely on procedural grounds.

The complaint alleged that Susan Hallock and her husband Richard owned and operated a home computer software business. After Richard’s identity was stolen and his credit cards used to purchase online child pornography, Customs agents obtained and executed a search warrant on the Hallock’s home and seized their computer equipment. Although the seizure did not result in criminal charges being filed, when the computer equipment was returned much of it was damaged and all the stored data, including trade secrets and account files, was lost. As a result the Hallocks were forced to close their business.

Hallock invoked the FTCA waiver of sovereign immunity to bring suit, but the District Court granted the Government’s motion to dismiss, holding that the agents’ activities fell within an exception to the FTCA’s waiver. While this suit was pending Hallock filed a separate Bivens action against the agents, and after the first court granted the Government’s motion to dismiss the agents claimed that the FTCA judgment bar required dismissal of the Bivens action. The judgment bar provides that judgments under the FTCA “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.” The District Court denied the motion, holding that since the dismissal of the first suit was based solely on procedural grounds the judgment bar was not raised. The Second Circuit found jurisdiction under the collateral order doctrine and affirmed.

In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Souter the Court vacated the judgment of the Second Circuit and remanded with instructions to dismiss the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. The opinion began by stressing the Court’s intentionally narrow interpretation of the collateral order doctrine, noting four categories of orders which it has previously deemed immediately appealable: orders rejecting claims of (1) absolute and (2) qualified immunity; (3) the denial of Eleventh Amendment immunity to a state; and (4) an adverse ruling to a criminal defendant on a defense of double jeopardy. The Court then rejected the claim that these four categories can be generalized to state that a party is entitled to an immediate appeal any time it is vindicating a right to avoid trial. What makes these four different, the Court stated, is that in each case some “particular value of a high order was marshaled in support of the interest in avoiding trial: separation of powers, preserving the efficiency of government and the initiative of its officials, respecting a State’s dignitary interests, and mitigating the government’s advantage over the individual.”

The Court next turned to whether the Customs agents’ claim in this case serves a similarly substantial public interest. Their claim appears similar to one of qualified immunity, but qualified immunity is justified by both an interest in abbreviating troublesome litigation and the need to ensure that reasonable officers show initiative in the face of unclear law. The FTCA judgment bar can only claim the first of these as a justification, and if a simple interest in avoiding litigation were sufficient to invoke the collateral appeal doctrine it would become a matter of right anytime the government lost a motion to dismiss under the FTCA or a government official lost a similar motion on a Bivens action or a suit based on § 1983 or Ex Parte Young. This would make the scope of the collateral appeal doctrine far too broad.

The Court also distinguished the judgment bar from qualified immunity because the bar has an essential procedural element: it can’t be invoked unless there is a prior judgment. The better analogy, then, is not qualified immunity but res judicata, which is not an exception to the collateral appeal doctrine absent particular compelling reasons. Both res judicata and the judgment bar rely on prior judgments and both serve the goal of avoiding duplicitous litigation. The FTCA does not present a claim of significance any greater than claim preclusion, and as such does not fall under the narrow exceptions to the collateral order doctrine.

The Court’s decision is available here.

SCOTUSblog’s pre-argument write-up of the case is available here.