Brownback v. King
Does the judgment bar provision of the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) prevent a plaintiff, whose FTCA claim against the government failed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, from filing a Bivens action against the same defendants and arising from the same set of facts and injuries?Advocates
- Michael R. Huston, Esq., on behalf of Douglas Brownback, et al., Petitioners
- Patrick M. Jaicomo, Esq., on behalf of James King, Respondent
The underlying facts of Brownback v. King are straightforward. An FBI joint task force of federal and city law enforcement officers believed that King, whom they saw walking down the street one afternoon, was the suspect they were seeking. The officers, dressed in plainclothes, stopped King, questioned him, and removed, among other things, his wallet from his pocket. King, apparently thinking that he was being mugged, attempted to run away. An altercation between the officers and King ensued, resulting in his being taken to the emergency room for medical treatment. King was prosecuted for resisting arrest and acquitted. Subsequently, King sued both the United States and the officers in federal district court, asserting claims under the Fourth Amendment for an unreasonable search and excessive force.
The United States and its officers prevailed on pretrial motions in the district court, albeit on different grounds. The district court held that it did not have subject matter jurisdiction over the claim against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) and that the individual defendants were entitled to summary judgment on the grounds of qualified immunity. King appealed this judgment with respect to two of the officers but did not challenge the judgment in favor of the United States and another defendant.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court. It considered whether, following the district court’s ruling, the judgment bar of the FTCA precluded the plaintiff’s claims against the officers. The FTCA judgment bar states, “The judgment in an action under section 1346(b) of this title [against the United States] 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.” Defendants argued, on appeal, that the district court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims against the United States activated the judgment bar. The Sixth Circuit held the claims were not barred, reasoning that the “FTCA does not bar Plaintiff from maintaining his claims . . . because the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiff’s FTCA claim.”
The officers appealed the Sixth Circuit’s judgment to the Supreme Court, which granted certiorari. The Court will now determine whether a final judgment, in favor of the United States, in an action brought under Section 1346(b)(1) of the FTCA, on the ground that a private person would not be liable to the claimant under state tort law for the injuries alleged, bars a claim brought by the same claimant, based on the same injuries, and against the same governmental employees whose acts gave rise to the claimant’s FTCA claim.
We have focused on two exchanges. In the first, Justice Clarence Thomas asked Mr. Huston whether a judgment that is appealable still has preclusive effect. Mr. Huston answered the question correctly, saying “Yes,” because “the definition of judgment” in the federal statute, 28 U.S.C. section 2676 (the judgment bar), “is the same as the definition of the word judgment in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.” We have elaborated on Mr. Huston’s answer to suggest that he could have incorporated the procedural history of the case to support the government’s argument for reversal.
In the second, Justice Breyer clarified with Mr. Jaicomo that under his theory of the case, a plaintiff could sue the United States and individual officers in the same case, prevail against the United States and obtain damages, and also prevail against the individual officers and obtain additional – not duplicative – damages. Consistent with his position, Mr. Jaicomo agreed that this was possible and in fact had been Congress’s intent under the FTCA and related legal authorities. We have elaborated on his answer to explain why, on balance, this would be better than the scenario that would result from the government’s broad reading of the judgment bar.Brownback v. King on Oyez: https://www.oyez.org/cases/2020/19-546