Simmons v. Himmelreich

PETITIONER: Jermaine Simmons et al.
RESPONDENT: Walter J. Himmelreich
LOCATION: Federal Correctional Institution

DOCKET NO.: 15-109
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2016- )
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 578 US (2016)
GRANTED: Nov 06, 2015
ARGUED: Mar 22, 2016
DECIDED: Jun 06, 2016

ADVOCATES:
Roman Martinez - Assistant to the Solicitor General, for the petitioners
Christian Vergonis - for the respondent

Facts of the case

Walter Himmelreich is a federal prisoner at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut. In 2008, he was attacked by another prisoner. Himmelreich filed a complaint against multiple defendants alleging many causes of action, including a claim that his First Amendment rights were violated when he was placed in administrative detention after filing a claim under the Federal Torts Claims Act (FTCA) and a claim that his Eighth Amendment rights were violated when the prison officials failed to protect him from being assaulted by another inmate. The district court dismissed his case for failure to state a claim. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit vacated the decision and remanded the case for reconsideration of the First and Eighth Amendment claims.

On remand, the district court granted summary judgment for the defendants by holding that Himmelreich had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies on the claims and that the prison officials were subject to the discretionary exception to the FTCA, which triggered the judgment bar of the FTCA, 28 U.S.C. §2676, that prohibits “any action by the same claimant, by reason of the same subject matter, against the employee of the government whose act of omission gave rise to the claim.” The appellate court again vacated and remanded the lower court’s judgment. It held that Himmelreich’s failure to exhaust his administrative remedies should be excused because he had been intimidated and threatened by prison officials to not pursue a grievance process against them. The appellate court also found that the dismissal of Himmelreich’s claim based on discretionary exception to the FTCA as applied by the district court does not necessarily trigger a judgment bar of 28 U.S.C §2676.

Question

Does the judgment bar in 28 U.S.C. §2676 of the Federal Torts Claims Act (FTCA) prohibit an action brought against government agents if the claim brought under the FTCA was dismissed?

Media for Simmons v. Himmelreich

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 22, 2016 in Simmons v. Himmelreich

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 06, 2016 in Simmons v. Himmelreich

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Sotomayor has our opinion in case 15-109, Simmons versus Himmelreich.

Sonia Sotomayor:

The Federal Tort Claims Act, “the FTCA”, allows plaintiffs to seek damages from the United States for certain torts committed by federal employees.

Many of the FTCA's provisions are contained in Chapter 171 of the United States Code.

But an exception section of the FTCA dictates that the provisions of Chapter 171 shall not apply to certain categories of claims.

At issue in this case is whether one of the provisions of Chapter 171, the so-called judgment bar provision might nonetheless apply to a claim in one of the accepted categories.

We conclude it does not.

This case began with two suits filed by Walter Himmelreich.

In each, Himmelreich alleged that he had been severely beaten by a fellow inmate in federal prison and that the beating was a result of prison officials’ negligence.

Himmelreich's assailant had warned prison officials that he would smash a pedophile if returned into the general population.

Prison officials nonetheless returned him to the general population where he badly beat Himmelreich who was serving a sentence for child pornography.

Himmelreich filed two lawsuits.

The first was a suit against the United States.

The government moved to dismiss that suit alleging that it fell into one of the exceptions to the FTCA for claims arising from a federal employee's performance of a discretionary function.

The district court agreed with the government's contention and dismissed the suit.

Before that suit was dismissed, however, Himmelreich had filed a second suit, this one against the individual prison employees instead of against the United States.

After the dismissal of Himmelreich's first suit, the individual employee defendants argued that the second suit 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.

We granted certiorari to resolve a circuit split on whether the judgment bar provision applies to suits that fall within an exception to the FTCA.

We now affirm.

Absent persuasive indications to the contrary, we presume Congress says what it means and means what it says.

The exception section of the FTCA commands that the provisions of the chapter, that is Chapter 171, shall not apply to claims in one of the exception's categories.

The judgment bar provision is a provision of Chapter 171.

The plain text of the statute, therefore, dictates that it shall not apply to claims that fall into one of the exceptions.

Nothing about the exception section or the judgment bar provision gives us any reason to doubt the plain text results in this case.

The government argues that United States versus Smith, one of our prior cases, stands for the proposition that we cannot read the exception sections command so literally, but Smith is distinguishable because that language did not mention the “shall not apply” language and because of the unique language of the statute implementing the provision that Smith construed.

Nothing in the text of the judgment bar provision compels the same result here.

The reading we adopt today yields sensible results.

Where an FTCA claim is dismissed because it falls within one of the exceptions the dismissal 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 liable instead.

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