Will v. Hallock

PETITIONER: Richard Will et al.
RESPONDENT: Susan Hallock et al.
LOCATION: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

DOCKET NO.: 04-1332
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2005-2006)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 546 US 345 (2006)
GRANTED: Jun 06, 2005
ARGUED: Nov 28, 2005
DECIDED: Jan 18, 2006

ADVOCATES:
Allison M. Zieve - argued the cause for Respondents
Douglas Hallward-Driemeier - argued the cause for Petitioners

Facts of the case

U.S. Customs Service agents investigating a child pornography website raided Susan and Richard Hallock's residence and seized several computers. The Hallocks were cleared of any guilt, but the computers were damaged beyond repair. Susan Hallock originally sued the government under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), which waives the government's sovereign immunity in certain cases. The District Court dismissed that case for lack of jurisdiction, because the FTCA's waiver has an exception for claims arising from the detention of goods by customs. Hallock then sued Will and the other customs agents as individuals. The agents made a motion for dismissal under a provision of the FTCA that bars suits where a judgment on the claim has already been entered. The District Court denied the motion, accepting Hallock's argument that the dismissal for lack of jurisdiction did not constitute a final judgment. Although the trial had not yet concluded, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals granted the agents' appeal of the District Court's ruling on the motion and affirmed the District Court, ruling that since Hallock had not properly brought a claim in the original suit, no judgment had been entered. The Circuit Court ruled that it had jurisdiction to hear the appeal under the collateral order doctrine, under which some decisions of lower courts other than final judgments can be appealed. The Supreme Court granted certiorari on the question of the motion to dismiss, but instructed the parties to argue the question of the Circuit Court's authority to hear the appeal.

Question

1) If a claim under the FTCA is dismissed on the grounds that it is covered by one of the Act's exceptions to the waiver of sovereign immunity, is the dismissal a final judgment that bars a subsequent suit against the individual federal employees who were involved? 2) Did the Circuit Court have jurisdiction under the collateral order doctrine to hear an appeal of the District Court's order?

Media for Will v. Hallock

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 28, 2005 in Will v. Hallock

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 18, 2006 in Will v. Hallock

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Souter has the opinion in No. 04-1332, Will versus Hallock.

David H. Souter:

This case comes to us on certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.

Richard Hallock’s credit-card information was stolen and used to pay the fee on a child-pornography website.

Based on this information, Customs agents executed a search warrant at his house and seized various pieces of computer equipment.

No criminal charges were brought; but the equipment was returned damaged, and all of the stored data were lost.

As a result, the computer-software company that Richard Hallock’s wife, Susan, owned and operated from home was forced out of business.

Susan Hallock sued the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act, alleging negligence by the agents in making the search.

The District Court dismissed the suit after finding that the agents’ behavior fell within an exception to the Tort Claims Act waiver of sovereign immunity.

In the meantime, Susan Hallock also filed a so-called Bivens action against the individual agents involved in the search.

After the District Court ruled for the Government in the first suit, the agents sought to have the Bivens suit thrown out by invoking the judgment bar of the Tort Claims Act.

The judgment bar precludes action against federal employees on the same subject matter as a concluded prior suit brought against the Government under the Act itself.

The District Court found that the judgment bar was not applicable, and the 2nd Circuit affirmed.

We granted certiorari to decide whether the judgment bar applied, but in a unanimous opinion filed today with the Clerk of Court, we vacate for want of appellate jurisdiction.

Even though the suit against the agents was still pending, appellate jurisdiction was said to exist in this case by virtue of the collateral order doctrine.

That doctrine permits appeals from a small class of rulings that do not conclude litigation, but conclusively decide an issue separate from the merits that would be effectively unreviewable on appeal.

Examples of such orders include those denying claims of the absolute immunity, qualified immunity, Eleventh Amendment immunity and double jeopardy.

There is a temptation to extrapolate from these examples to a rule that collateral appeal is available whenever a party is claiming a right to win in advance of trial.

But if this temptation is not resisted, as we explained in our earlier digital-equipment case, just about every pretrial order could be described as denying a claim to avoid trial, and the general rule requiring one appeal at the end of the litigation would be reduced to tatters.

Thus, we clarify today that it is not just the avoidance of trial that counts when deciding if a preliminary order is immediately appealable; for appealability, there has to be something more.

It has to be shown that the failure to allow immediate appeal would imperil a substantial public interest.

There is no such public interest at stake here, simply because the judgment bar of the Tort Claims Act was held to be inapplicable.

The Government likens this order to one denying qualified immunity, but that is not a good analogy.

If Susan Hallock had brought her Bivens action and no other, the agents could not possibly claim a right not to stand trial.

The judgment bar, therefore, is more like rules of claim preclusion than rules of immunity, and we have said before that orders denying claim preclusions do not fit under the collateral order doctrine.

Thus, the Court of Appeals did not have appellate jurisdiction over the case, and we vacate its judgment with instructions to dismiss the appeal.