Breaking News: Supreme Court Decides FTCA is Subject to Equitable Tolling

Contributed by Lisa Sokolowski

Just this morning, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision in two consolidated cases that this blog has been watching, both involving the question of whether the limitations periods under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”) are jurisdictional or subject to equitable tolling.  The first case, United States v. Wong, No. 13-1074, asked whether the six-month time bar for filing suit in federal court under the FTCA is subject to equitable tolling.  The second case, United States v. June, No. 13-1075, asked whether the two-year time limit for filing an administrative claim with the appropriate federal agency under the FTCA is subject to equitable tolling.

To review, the FTCA waives sovereign immunity and generally allows private plaintiffs to recover for personal injuries caused by the negligent act or omission of a United States government employee acting within the scope of his or her office or employment.  See 28 U.S.C. § 1346.  Before filing suit, however, a plaintiff is required to present the claim to the proper federal agency.  A FTCA claim is “forever barred” unless the plaintiff meets two deadlines.  First, the 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 denies the claim, the plaintiff must file suit in federal court within six months of the denial.  Id.

In June, the plaintiff filed a claim against the Federal Highway Administration, which June alleged negligently allowed the state of Arizona to install cable media barriers on the highway, leading to a fatal accident.  Though June filed the claim approximately five years after the car accident instead of the required two years, June alleged that the Government had concealed facts about its approval of the barriers and that the FTCA limitations period should therefore be equitably tolled.  Involving another limitations period set by the FTCA, the case of Wong arose out of a challenge to Wong’s confinement and removal by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.  After the INS denied Wong’s FTCA claim, a magistrate judge recommended that leave to amend be granted.  However, the district judge only adopted the magistrate judge’s findings and recommendations three weeks after the six-month deadline expired.  As such, Wong filed an amended complaint adding the FTCA claim after the limitations period expired.

In a divided opinion, the Court decided that the FTCA’s time limitations are indeed subject to equitable tolling.  The opinion, written by Justice Kagan and joined by Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, explained that under the relevant case law, courts will not conclude that a time bar is jurisdictional—and thereby rebut the presumption that such a time bar may be equitably tolled—unless Congress provides a clear statement to that effect.  The Court did not find the needed “clear statement” in § 2401(b).  The Court found that the Government’s principal arguments for treating § 2401(b) as jurisdictional (first, that the section contains the same language as the statute of limitations for the Tucker Act, which has been held jurisdictional; and second, that it was a condition of the FTCA’s sovereign immunity waiver that the statute of limitations be jurisdictional) were not compelling.

The Court’s holding affirms that, under the FTCA, the United States government will be treated as a private individual.  Specifically, under this ruling, the FTCA will allow plaintiffs to file claims past the limitations periods when those plaintiffs, through no fault of their own, were unable to comply with the relevant statute of limitations.  Though the specific factual circumstances of Wong and June present key examples of arguments in favor of equitable tolling—concealment of facts and administrative delays—plaintiffs have now been given the stamp of approval to bring other assertions of good faith and dilatory tactics when bringing suit past the limitations period set by the FTCA.