On April 22, 2015, the United States Supreme Court decided United States v. Wong, No. 13-1074, together with United States v. June, No. 13-1075, holding that the Federal Tort Claims Act’s time limits are not jurisdictional and may be tolled on equitable grounds.
The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), 28 U.S.C. § 2401(b), provides that a tort claim against the United States “shall be forever barred” unless the claimant meets two deadlines. First, a claim must be presented to the “appropriate Federal Agency within two years after such claim accrues.” Second, the claimant must file “within six months” after the agency denies the claim. The claimants in both of the cases missed one of the deadlines, but argued that they were entitled to equitable tolling, under which a court may pause the running of a statutory limitations period when a party “has pursued his rights diligently but some extraordinary circumstance” prevents him from meeting a deadline.
The district courts in both cases dismissed the claims, holding that the FTCA deadlines were jurisdictional and were not subject to equitable tolling. The Ninth Circuit reversed in both cases, holding that the deadlines were not jurisdictional and were subject to equitable tolling.
The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the FTCA time bars are not jurisdictional, and therefore are subject to equitable tolling. The Court began by observing that there is a presumption that statutory time bars are subject to equitable tolling, and that this presumption applies to claims against the government under statutes that waive sovereign immunity. But Congress may overcome that presumption by “clearly stating” that a time bar is jurisdictional. The Court stated that the government must clear a “high bar to establish that a statute of limitations is jurisdictional.”
The Court held Congress provided no clear statement in the FTCA that the statute’s time limits are jurisdictional. The Court concluded that the text of the FTCA “speaks only to a claim’s timeliness, not to a court’s power” and “reads like an ordinary, run-of-the-mill statute of limitations.” The Court noted that Congress separated the filing deadlines from the jurisdictional grant in the statute, indicating that the time bar is not jurisdictional. The Court also held that that statutory provision that a claim “shall be forever barred” did not have jurisdictional significance because it was an ordinary way of setting a deadline. The Court added that “it makes no difference that a time bar conditions a waiver of sovereign immunity, even if Congress enacted the measure when different interpretive convictions applied,” because the Court already decided to treat time bars in suits against the government the same as in suits between private parties. Therefore, the Court held that the FTCA’s time bars are nonjurisdictional and subject to equitable tolling.
Justice Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor joined. Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion, in which Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Scalia and Thomas joined.