Brownback v. King: FTCA ‘judgment bar’ applies when district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction
The Federal Tort Claims Act “judgment bar” applies even where the plaintiff fails to establish all elements of his claim so as to deprive the District Court of jurisdiction, the U.S. Supreme Court held February 25 in Brownback v. King.
The FTCA allows a plaintiff to bring certain state-law tort suits against the federal government.
The Act waives sovereign immunity of the United States if a plaintiff asserts an “actionable” claim, which requires showing six elements: (1) that the action is against the U.S.; (2) for money damages; (3) for injury, death or loss of property; (4) caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any federal employee; (5) while acting within the scope of their employment; (6) under circumstances where the U.S., if a private person, would be liable.
Although the Act waives sovereign immunity so parties can sue the federal government directly for harms caused by federal employees, the Act makes it more difficult to sue the employees themselves due to the “judgment bar” provision.
The “judgment bar” provision precludes “any action by the [plaintiff] by reason of the same subject matter, against the employee of the government whose act or omission gave rise to the claims” if a court entered judgment under Section 1346(b) of the Act.
James King sued the federal government under the FTCA after two federal officers mistook him for a fugitive. He alleged the officers committed various torts under Michigan law.
King also sued the officers individually under Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), alleging the officers violated his Fourth Amendment rights.
The officers moved to dismiss under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim.
The District Court dismissed King’s claims for failure to state a viable claim.
King appealed only the dismissal of his Bivens claims.
The Sixth Circuit assessed whether the dismissal of King’s FTCA claims triggered the “judgment bar” and thus blocked his parallel Bivens claims. It did not, the Sixth Circuit ruled, because the District Court dismissed King’s FTCA claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction for failure to state a viable clam and thus did not reach the merits.
The officers appealed.
The Supreme Court, in a 9-0 opinion, reversed.
The “judgment bar” functions in much the same matter as the common-law doctrine of claim preclusion, the Court said.
“To trigger the doctrine of res judicata or claim preclusion a judgment must be on the merits,” the Court said. The District Court’s decision was a judgment on the merits because it ruled that King had not established all the elements necessary for an FTCA claim.
“The one complication in this case is that it involves overlapping questions about sovereign immunity and subject matter jurisdiction,” the Court continued.
“The District Court also determined that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction,” the Court said. “But an on-the-merits judgment can still trigger the judgment bar, even if that determination necessarily deprives the court of subject matter jurisdiction.”
“[I]n the unique context of the FTCA, all elements of a meritorious claim are also jurisdictional,” the Court said. “Because King’s tort claims failed to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the United States necessarily retained sovereign immunity, also depriving the court of subject-matter jurisdiction.”
“A dismissal for lack of jurisdiction is still a ‘judgment,’” the Court said. “Because a federal court always has jurisdiction to determine its own jurisdiction … a federal court can decide an element of an FTCA claim on the merits if that element is also jurisdictional,” the Court concluded. “The District Court did just that with its Rule 12(b)(6) decision.”
“We conclude that the District Court’s order was a judgment on the merits of the FTCA claims that can trigger the judgment bar.”