SCOTUS Broadly Interprets the Federal Tort Claims Act’s “Law Enforcement Proviso”

Last week in Millbrook v. United States (March 27, 2013), the U.S. Supreme Court (per Justice Thomas, writing for a unanimous Court) issued a decision broadly interpreting the Federal Tort Claims Act’s so-called “law enforcement proviso” codified at 28 U.S.C. § 2680(h).

Petitioner Kim Millbrook, a prisoner in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, alleged that corrections officers sexually assaulted and verbally threatened him while he was in their custody.  He sued under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

The district court held, and the Third Circuit agreed, that the FTCA (28 U. S. C. §1346(b)) “waives the United States’ sovereign immunity for certain intentional torts by law enforcement officers” only “when the tortious conduct occurs in the course of executing a search, seizing evidence, or making an arrest.”  (Here, the alleged assailants were not engaged in any of those activities.)

SCOTUS reversed, holding that the waiver is “not so limited”.

The Court looked to the FTCA’s plain language, and rejected lower courts’ attempts to read into the statute a requirement that wasn’t there:

By its terms, [28 U.S.C. § 2680(h)] focuses on the status of persons whose conduct may be actionable, not the types of activities that may give rise to a tort claim against the United States.  The proviso thus distinguishes between the acts for which immunity is waived (e.g., assault and battery), and the class of persons whose acts may give rise to an actionable FTCA claim. The plain text confirms that Congress intended immunity determinations to depend on a federal officer’s legal authority, not on a particular exercise of that authority.  

(Emphasis added.)

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