May 7, 2015, Trial News | The American Association For Justice Archive

May 7, 2015, Trial News

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Supreme Court rules filing deadlines in FTCA cases can be equitably tolled

Alyssa E. Lambert

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The statute of limitations deadline for filing negligence claims against the government under the Federal Tort Claims Act can be equitably tolled if the plaintiffs diligently try to comply with those deadlines but extraordinary circumstances prevent it, the Supreme Court has held.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court has held that the statute of limitations deadline for filing negligence claims against the government under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) can be equitably tolled if the plaintiffs try diligently to comply with those deadlines but extraordinary circumstances prevent it. The Court affirmed the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in two unrelated cases that involve this issue. Attorneys said the decision will help keep the courthouse doors open for FTCA plaintiffs. (United States v. Wong & United States v. June, 2015 WL 1808750 (U.S. Apr. 22, 2015).)

Under the FTCA, which generally waives sovereign immunity in cases brought against the government for federal employees’ negligence, an injured claimant must file an administrative claim with the relevant federal agency within two years after the cause of action accrues. After a claim is denied, the person can file a lawsuit within six months of the agency denial. Section 2401(b) of the FTCA also provides that claims that do not comply with these time limits “shall be forever barred.”

In United States v. Wong, Kwai Fun Wong sued the Immigration and Naturalization Service after being detained in Oregon, strip-searched, and deported. She timely presented a claim, and while awaiting the agency’s review, she filed a motion for leave to amend her complaint to add an FTCA cause of action. But the district court granted her motion three weeks after the six-month deadline expired and later ruled Wong’s lawsuit was time barred.

In United States v. June, Andrew Booth was killed in a highway traffic accident in 2005 involving a median safety barrier that failed. Marlene June filed a wrongful death action on Booth’s child’s behalf against Arizona and its contractor for negligently constructing and maintaining the barrier. Several years later, June discovered the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) had approved the barrier’s installation, even though it had not been properly crash tested. In 2010, she filed an administrative claim with the agency, which denied the claim. June sued the FHWA in federal district court, but the court denied the claim as untimely.

The Ninth Circuit separately reversed both lower courts. It concluded that FTCA time limits are subject to equitable tolling when the plaintiffs are diligent in pursuing their claims but cannot comply with those limits due to circumstances beyond their control, especially if the government plays a part in creating those circumstances.

The government appealed, arguing that Congress intended the FTCA deadlines to be firm and that it should not leave itself open to claims indefinitely. The plaintiffs argued that the statute provides that the federal government “shall be liable in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances,” and courts often exercise the right to allow equitable tolling in private litigation.

At a lengthy two-hour oral argument in December, the justices asked few questions, but Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan expressed concern that the government’s argument means that any statute waiving sovereign immunity must be jurisdictional and not subject to equitable tolling.

The Supreme Court held that Congress did not clearly indicate it wanted those deadlines to be unmovable when it passed the FTCA, which has been amended four times. Neither the legislative history nor the text of the statute indicate that Congress intended the provision to impose a jurisdictional bar. The Court also noted that the FTCA’s jurisdictional grant is in another provision of the statute and is not expressly conditioned on compliance with the statute’s limitations period.

 “Congress must do something special, beyond setting an exception-free deadline, to tag a statute of limitations as jurisdictional and so prohibit a court from tolling it. . . . In enacting the FTCA, Congress did nothing of that kind,” Kagan wrote for the majority. The court added: “Most important, §2401(b)’s text speaks only to a claim’s timeliness, not a court’s power.”

Although the government argued that §2401(b) is jurisdictional because it is a condition of the FTCA’s waiver of sovereign immunity, the Court ruled that its previous decision in Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs, which established the framework for deciding the applicability of equitable tolling in negligence suits against the federal government, foreclosed this argument. In Irwin, the Court held the rebuttable presumption of equitable tolling, which applies to private parties in litigation, should likewise apply to suits brought against the United States under statutes waiving sovereign immunity.

Justice Samuel Alito, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, arguing that the statutory text and case precedent establish that the FTCA’s “absolute bar” is not subject to equitable tolling.

Jeffrey White, senior litigation counsel at the Center for Constitutional Litigation in Washington, D.C., who wrote the amicus brief on AAJ’s behalf, praised the decision for adopting equitable tolling. “This is basically the equitable rule everywhere. The only uncertainty in this case was whether it would govern claims against the United States itself. The Court held correctly that it does, allowing courts a way to prevent out-and-out unfair results. That’s the whole point of equitable tolling,” White said.

“The dissent pretty much mirrored the government’s brief,” White added. “What we [AAJ] pointed out and what Justice Kagan picked up on was that the word ‘jurisdictional’ was used a lot more loosely many years ago than it is now.”

Several veterans groups, led by the Paralyzed Veterans of America, filed an amicus brief, arguing veterans would be disproportionately affected if there were no equitable tolling when filing medical malpractice and other negligence claims against the government because the Department of Veterans Affairs has a confusing and complex administrative claims process.

White agreed that veterans would have been harmed. “It would be one more instance where it would be unfair to apply the statute of limitations strictly where people who were diligent should not have the courthouse door closed against them,” he said.