February 25, 2021

Supreme Court Decides Brownback v. King

On February 25, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided Brownback v. King, No. 19–546, holding that the judgment bar of the Federal Tort Claims Act was triggered by a judgment of dismissal for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) because that dismissal was “on the merits,” even though it also deprived the district court of subject-matter jurisdiction.

Passed by Congress in 1946, the FTCA waived sovereign immunity of the United States, allowing suit against the United States for harm resulting from certain torts committed by federal employees to the extent actionable under local state law. Somewhat unique to the FTCA regime, federal jurisdiction exists only if the claims satisfy the six statutory elements required under the Act. Jurisdiction therefore depends on plausible allegations showing an entitlement to relief under the FTCA; the merits and jurisdictional inquiries overlap. In opening this path to relief against the United States, the Act narrowed the path to relief against the federal employees by adding a “judgment bar” — “‘once a plaintiff receives a judgment (favorable or not) in an FTCA suit,’ the bar is triggered, and ‘he generally cannot proceed with a suit against an individual employee based on the same underlying facts.’” (quoting Simmons v. Himmelreich, 578 U.S. 621, 625 (2016)).

Respondent James King was mistaken for a fugitive by officers Todd Allen and Douglas Brownback, members of a federal task force; and a violent encounter ensued. King sued the United States under the FTCA, alleging the officers committed six torts under Michigan law, and also sued the officers individually, alleging constitutional violations under Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). The District Court granted summary judgment to the United States because the officers were immune from suit under state law and therefore so was the government. In the alternative, the court dismissed the FTCA claims under Rule 12(b)(6), ruling that King had failed to plausibly plead entitlement to relief. The District Court also dismissed King’s Bivens claims, finding that the officers were entitled to federal qualified immunity.

King appealed only the dismissal of his Bivens claims. As a threshold question, the Sixth Circuit assessed whether the dismissal of King’s FTCA claims triggered the judgment bar, thereby precluding the parallel Bivens claims. The Sixth Circuit concluded that it did not, because the dismissal of the FTCA claims deprived the District Court of subject-matter jurisdiction such that it “did not reach the merits.” The Sixth Circuit then held that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity and reversed the dismissal of the Bivens claims.

The Supreme Court unanimously reversed and remanded. The Court explained “that the judgment bar was drafted against the backdrop doctrine of res judicata” and therefore it is triggered by a judgment on the merits. The District Court’s dismissal was “a quintessential merits decision: whether the undisputed facts established all the elements of King’s FTCA claims.” Thus, the FTCA judgment bar applied.

The Court noted that the issue was “complicated” by the jurisdictional impact of the failure to state a claim under the FTCA on the merits. “[E]ven though the District Court’s ruling in effect deprived the court of jurisdiction, the District Court necessarily passed on the substance of King’s FTCA claims.” The Court explained that “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.”

Justice Thomas delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court with Justice Sotomayor filing a concurring opinion. She wrote separately to emphasize that “the Court does not today decide whether an order resolving the merits of an FTCA claim precludes other claims arising out of the same subject matter in the same suit.” Footnote 4 of the Court’s opinion left that issue for the Sixth Circuit to address on remand. Justice Sotomayor’s concurring opinion discussed arguments on both sides of that issue and deemed it one worthy of “closer analysis” than it has received in the lower courts to date.

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