June 06, 2016

Supreme Court Decides Simmons v. Himmelreich

On June 6, 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Simmons v. Himmelreich, No. 15–109, holding that the judgment-bar provision of the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) does not apply to claims dismissed for falling within an exception to the Act.

The FTCA allows plaintiffs to recover damages from the United States for certain torts committed by federal employees, “[s]ubject to the provisions of chapter 171” of Title 28. 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b). Chapter 171 contains various procedural provisions, including a “judgment- bar provision,” under which a final judgment in an earlier FTCA lawsuit forecloses a later lawsuit against an individual employee based on the same underlying facts. 28 U.S.C. § 2676. But the FTCA also contains an “Exceptions” section, under which the provisions of Chapter 171 do not apply to certain categories of claims, including a claim based on the performance of a “discretionary function.” 28 U.S.C. § 2680.

Walter Himmelreich, a federal prisoner, filed two lawsuits alleging that a severe beating he received from a fellow inmate was caused by prison officials’ negligence. Himmelreich filed the first lawsuit against the United States. The Government treated the lawsuit as a claim under the FTCA, and moved to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that it fell within one of the exceptions to the FTCA for claims based on the exercise or performance of a “discretionary function” of the government. The district court granted the motion and dismissed the case. But before that motion was decided, Himmelreich filed a second lawsuit, this one a constitutional tort suit against the individual prison employees. The individual defendants then moved for summary judgment on the ground that the new claim was precluded by the judgment-bar provision, and the district court granted that motion. But the Sixth Circuit reversed, concluding that the judgment-bar provision did not cover the second lawsuit.

The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the judgment-bar provision does not apply to claims excepted from the FTCA. The Court observed that the “Exceptions” section provides that the requirements of Chapter 171 do not apply to a claim based upon the exercise or performance of a discretionary function, and that the judgment-bar is a provision of Chapter 171. Thus, the Court concluded, the judgment bar does not apply to a prior claim based upon the exercise or performance of a discretionary function. The Court rejected the Government’s argument that United States v. Smith, 499 U.S. 160 (1991), required a different result because the Court in that case applied another provision of Chapter 171 (the “exclusive-remedies” provision) to a claim that fell within one of the exceptions to FTCA coverage. The Court observed that Smith did not discuss or cite the “shall not apply” language in the “Exceptions” section and that the exclusive-remedies provision at issue in that case was enacted as part of a different statute that was aimed at reducing the number of tort suits against Government employees. The Court concluded that nothing in the text of the judgment-bar provision required the same result.

Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Download the Opinion of the Court

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