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Supreme Court Holds Equitable Tolling Excuses Missed Federal Tort Claim Filing Deadlines

Supreme Court Holds Equitable Tolling Excuses Missed Federal Tort Claim Filing Deadlines

by Derek Gilna

It’s not easy to sue the United States for damages. According to the Supreme Court, “The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA or Act) provides that a tort claim against the United States ‘shall be forever barred’” unless the claimant meets two statutory deadlines. First, a claim must be presented to the appropriate federal agency for administrative review “within two years after [the] claim accrues.” 28 U.S.C. § 2401(b). Second, if the agency denies the claim, the claimant may file suit “in federal court ‘within six months after’ the agency’s final decision.” [See: PLN, March 2014, p.44].

The Supreme Court addressed these deadlines in consolidated cases involving FTCA petitioners Kwai Fun Wong and Marlene June.

In Wong’s case, while she gave proper notice, she failed to file within the six-month period after the federal government denied her claim. June did not give proper notice within the two-year period. Both cases were denied at the district court level, but on appeal the Ninth Circuit held the doctrine of equitable tolling preserved both claims.

Wong argued that she had missed the filing deadline because the district court did not allow her to file her claim until after the period expired. June argued that her untimely filing should be excused because the government had, in her view, concealed facts vital to her claim. In each case the district court dismissed the FTCA claim for failure to meet the deadlines established by § 2401(b), holding that despite any justification for delay, the time limits were jurisdictional and not subject to equitable tolling.

In affirming the Ninth Circuit’s decisions in a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court agreed that the deadlines specified in § 2401(b) may be equitably tolled.

In so holding, the Court relied upon its previous decision in Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs, 498 U.S. 89 (1990), which “sets out the framework for deciding ‘the applicability of equitable tolling in suits against the Government.’” In Irwin, the Court found “‘the same rebuttable presumption of equitable tolling’ should also apply to suits brought against the United States under a statute waiving sovereign immunity.” While Congress can pass laws that bar equitable tolling, it must clearly express its intent to do so.

The Supreme Court held that in “enacting the FTCA, Congress did nothing of that kind. It provided no clear statement indicating that § 2401(b) is the rare statute of limitations that can deprive a court of jurisdiction. Neither the text nor the context nor the legislative history indicates (much less does so plainly) that Congress meant to enact something other than a standard time bar.”

Both cases were remanded, with the district court in June’s case to determine whether the petitioner was entitled to equitable tolling. See: United States v. Kwai Fun Wong, 135 S.Ct. 1625 (2015).

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Related legal case

United States v. Kwai Fun Wong