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U.S. Supreme Court Reinstates BOP Prisoner's FTCA Suit

On March 27, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified that the scope of the Federal Tort Claims Act's waiver of sovereign immunity for certain intentional torts committed by federal law enforcement officials was not limited to executing searches, seizing evidence or making arrests.

Federal prisoner Kim Millbrook filed a Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) suit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania that alleged negligence, assault and battery by Bureau of Prisons (BOP) guards. He claimed that a guard had sexually assaulted him while another restrained him and a third guard kept watch, and sought compensatory damages due to physical injuries he suffered.

The district court granted summary judgment to the BOP defendants and the Third Circuit affirmed based on Pooler v. United States, 787 F.2d 868 (3d Cir. 1986). Pooler limited the FTCA's law enforcement waiver proviso to tortuous conduct that occurred during the course of executing a search, seizing evidence or making an arrest. The appellate court reasoned that since Millbrook's claims occurred outside this narrow interpretation, they must be dismissed. See: Millbrook v. United States, 477 Fed.Appx. 4 (3d Cir. 2012).

The Supreme Court granted review and found that the relevant portion of the law enforcement proviso waives sovereign immunity when a claim arises from one of six intentional torts (assault, battery, false imprisonment, false arrest, malicious prosecution or abuse of process) that occur during the acts or omissions of an "investigative or law enforcement officer." 28 U.S.C. § 2680(h). The Court also examined the federal statutes that define an investigative or law enforcement officer as one empowered to execute searches, seize evidence or make arrests for violations of federal law.

In an opinion delivered by Justice Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court concluded that "executing a search, seizing evidence, or making an arrest" only referred to the type of person who could be liable under the FTCA, and did not limit the actions for which that person could be held liable.

The Court found there was no basis for concluding that an investigative or law enforcement officer's intentional tort must occur in the course of executing a search, seizing evidence or making an arrest in order to subject the United States to liability under the FTCA. Accordingly, the judgment of the Third Circuit was reversed and the rulings in Pooler and Orsay v. U.S. Dept. of Justice, 289 F.3d 1125 (9th Cir. 2002), which had limited the scope of the FTCA's law enforcement immunity waiver, were abrogated.

"By its terms, this provision focuses on the status of persons whose conduct may be actionable, not the types of activities that may give rise to a tort claim against the United States. The [law enforcement] proviso thus distinguishes between the acts for which immunity is waived (e.g., assault and battery), and the class of persons whose acts may give rise to an actionable FTCA claim," the Supreme Court explained. "The plain text confirms that Congress intended immunity determinations to depend on a federal officer's legal authority, not on a particular exercise of that authority." See: Millbrook v. United States, 133 S.Ct. 1441 (2013).

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Related legal case

Millbrook v. United States