United States v. Kwai Fun Wong

PETITIONER:United States
LOCATION: Inverness Jail

DOCKET NO.: 13-1074
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 575 US (2015)
GRANTED: Jun 30, 2014
ARGUED: Dec 10, 2014
DECIDED: Apr 22, 2015

E. Joshua Rosenkranz – for the respondent, United States v. June
Eric Schnapper – for the respondent
Roman Martinez – on behalf of the petitioner
Elizabeth Prelogar – Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the petitioner, United States v. June

Facts of the case

Kwai Fun Wong, a citizen of Hong Kong and leader of the Wu Wei Tien Tao religious organization, was arrested and deported by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for unlawful entry into the U.S. Prior to her deportation, Wong was briefly detained by the INS, during which she claimed to have been treated negligently by the INS. Under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), no civil suit may be filed against the United States unless the claimant has first filed a claim with the relevant federal agency and that claim has been denied.

Following denial, a claimant has six months to file suit or the suit is permanently barred. Wong filed a claim with the INS and, following the denial of that claim, sought leave from the district court to add a civil claim against the U.S. to her already outstanding suit against a number of federal officials. For unexplained reasons, the district court did not allow Wong to amend her complaint until seven months later, after the six-month deadline had passed. The district court then dismissed Wong’s federal civil complaint and held that the six-month deadline was “jurisdictional” and thus not subject to equitable tolling, or delaying the time at which a statute of limitations begins to run. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and found that equitable tolling could be applied to the six-month deadline.

This case was consolidated with United States v. June, a case in which the conservator (financial manager) of an estate argued that the two-year statute of limitations for filing suit under the FTCA should not have begun to run until she had access to the depositions of federal employees without which she could not have been aware of her claim against the federal government. As in Wong, the federal government claimed that this statute of limitations was “jurisdictional,” and thus not subject to equitable tolling. The district court agreed with the federal government and dismissed the suit. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and held that equitable tolling was appropriate based on its earlier opinion inWong v. Beebe.


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

Media for United States v. Kwai Fun Wong

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – December 10, 2014 in United States v. Kwai Fun Wong

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – April 22, 2015 in United States v. Kwai Fun Wong

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Kagan has the opinion this morning in Case 13-1074, United States v. Wong and 13-1075, United States v. June.

Elena Kagan:

The Federal Tort Claims Act or FTCA allows individuals who have been injured by federal employees to sue the United States.

And like most statutes authorizing lawsuits, it sets deadlines for when those cases may be brought.

A person first has to present her claim to a federal agency within two years, and if the agency denies the claim, the person must then bring it to court within six months.

If not, the statute says the claim is barred.

The respondents in these cases, Kwai Fun Wong and Marlene June, each missed one of those deadlines when trying to bring a tort claim against the federal government.

The issue we address today is whether a court can still hear Wong’s and June’s cases if their lateness was not their fault.

We think the answer is yes under a doctrine known as equitable tolling, which allows Courts to extend statutory deadlines when it’s fair to do so.

This Court long ago established a background presumption that equitable tolling is available in suits against the government.

In other words, as in most other kinds of cases, a person can be excused for failing to meet a time limit if there is very good reason to do so.

But the Court made clear that this presumption is rebuttable.

If Congress wants to make a deadline absolutely unmovable, it can do that.

And we have held that one way Congress can express that intent is by making a time limit jurisdictional.

When Congress does that, it deprives the Court of all authority to hear a late suit, no matter what the circumstance is.

But because such a rule can have very harsh consequences, we won’t treat a time bar as jurisdictional unless Congress tells us in no uncertain terms that that’s what it wants.

Congress typically does that by speaking directly about a Court’s power, not merely by setting time limits for litigants to follow.

And today we hold that Congress did not restrict a Court’s jurisdiction in the FTCA.

Neither the text, nor the context, nor the legislative history of the FTCA provides a clear indication that Congress wanted the statute’s time limits to operate as jurisdictional bars.

Those time limits look in every way like run-of-the-mill statutes of limitations, nothing more.

They make clear when a claim is late, but they do not constrain a Court’s power to adjudicate a late claim when there is very good reason to do so.

That is what the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said below, so we affirm its judgments.

Justice Alito has filed a dissenting opinion, in which the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia and Thomas join.