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Supreme Court Allows Prisoner’s § 1983 Action after Dismissal of Federal Tort Claim

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held on June 6, 2016 that a federal prisoner, Walter J. Himmelreich, could file a § 1983 federal civil rights complaint after the dismissal of his Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) claim, under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b), 2674. An FTCA suit allows a party to sue and hold liable the United States, provided certain procedural requirements are met. [See: PLN, March 2014, p.44].

Himmelreich, who was convicted of a sex crime, alleged in his first complaint that another prisoner, who had told prison officials that he would “smash” any pedophile he encountered, beat him severely due to the negligence of prison staff in failing to protect him. The district court construed the complaint as an FTCA action, and later granted the federal government’s motion to dismiss on the grounds that “the claim fell into one of the ‘Exceptions’ to the FTCA for ‘[a]ny claim based upon ... the exercise or performance ... [of] a discretionary function,’ namely, deciding where to house inmates.”However, before his FTCA claim was dismissed Himmelreich filed a § 1983 civil rights action, this time naming the individual prison employees as defendants rather than the United States. The defendants argued that the second lawsuit was “foreclosed by the FTCA’s judgment bar provision, according to which a judgment in an FTCA suit forecloses any future suit against individual employees.... the District Court agreed and granted summary judgment in favor of the individual prison employees.”

The Sixth Circuit reversed and the Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve a circuit split over whether the judgment bar provision extends to a claim that falls within the FTCA’s “Exceptions” section. The government contended that the judgment bar provision was applicable, and that the dismissal of the FTCA action therefore foreclosed the second lawsuit. The Court instead sided with Himmelreich, finding that the plain text of the FTCA’s “Exceptions” section applied, because “Absent persuasive indications to the contrary, we presume Congress says what it means and means what it says.”

Further, according to the Supreme Court, “Where an FTCA claim is dismissed because it falls within one of the ‘Exceptions,’ ... the judgment bar provision makes much less sense. The dismissal of a claim ... signals merely that the United States cannot be held liable for a particular claim; it has no logical bearing on whether an employee can be held liable instead.” The Court concluded, “We decline to ignore the text of the statute to achieve these imprudently restrictive results.”

The decision of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals was affirmed, and the case remanded for further proceedings. See: Simmons v. Himmelreich, 195 L.Ed.2d 106 (2016); 2016 U.S. LEXIS 3613. 

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Related legal case

Simmons v. Himmelreich