United States v. Kwai Fun Wong

Facts of the Case

The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) provided that a tort claim against the United States “shall be forever barred” unless the claimant has met two 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 denied the claim, the claimant may file suit in federal court “within six months” of the agency’s denial. Kwai Fun Wong and Marlene June, respondents in Nos. 13-1074 and 13-1075, respectively, each missed one of the aforementioned deadlines. Wong failed to file her FTCA claim in federal court within 6 months, but argued that it was because the District Court had not permitted her to file that claim until after the period expired. On the other hand, June failed to present her FTCA claim to a federal agency within 2 years, but 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 satisfy §2401(b)s time bars, holding that, despite any justification for delay, those time bars were jurisdictional and not subject to equitable tolling. The Ninth Circuit reversed in both cases, concluding that §2401(b)s time bars may be equitably tolled.

Question

Are the Federal Tort Claims Act’s statute of limitations provisions subject to equitable tolling?

CONCLUSION

Yes. Justice Elena Kagan delivered the opinion for the 5-4 majority. The Court held that, as in suits between private parties, there is presumption that equitable tolling is available for suits against the federal government. That presumption may be rebutted by evidence that the statute of limitations is jurisdictional, as the government attempted to show in these cases. Because such a determination would completely deprive a court of the authority to hear a case, the Court will only find that the time limitation is jurisdictional if Congress has clearly intended that result. The Court held that the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) does not provide any such clear statement that Congress intended the statute of limitations provisions to be jurisdictional.Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. wrote a dissenting opinion in which he argued that the history of the FTCA and its statutory language indicate that the statute of limitation provisions are not subject to equitable tolling. Because the FTCA waived the federal government’s sovereign immunity, Congress placed strict limits on situations in which the federal government might be subject to liability. The statute of limitations provisions at issue in these cases are examples of such protections against extensive governmental liability and have been interpreted as such. Even if the statute of limitations provisions are not jurisdictional, Justice Alito argued that they should still be interpreted as inflexible based on the statutory language and therefore not subject to equitable tolling. Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., Justice Antonin Scalia, and Justice Clarence Thomas joined in the dissent.

Case Information

  • Citation: 575 US _ (2015)
  • Granted: Jun 30, 2014
  • Argued: Dec 10, 2014
  • Decided Apr 22, 2015