The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the Sixth Circuit yesterday in Simmons v. Himmelreich, holding that the Federal Tort Claims Act’s “judgment bar” provision does not apply to claims that are dismissed under the “Exceptions” provision of the FTCA.  The FTCA permits plaintiffs to sue the federal government for certain torts committed by government employees.  But there’s a catch: the FTCA contains a “judgment bar,” providing that a judgment in an FTCA suit precludes any future suit against individual federal employees. 

Plaintiff, a prisoner, had initially sued the federal government under the FTCA, alleging that prison officials’ negligence had caused his beating by a fellow inmate. However, the FTCA includes a number of “Exceptions,” see 26 U.S.C. § 2680, including any claim based on the “exercise or performance [of] . . . a discretionary function.”  § 2680(a).  The plaintiff’s first suit was dismissed under this exception, and he brought a second suit against individual prison employees.  The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, on the ground that plaintiff’s first dismissal triggered the FTCA’s judgment bar.  In a unanimous per curiam opinion, Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that the judgment bar did not apply because “district courts lack subject-matter jurisdiction over an FTCA claim when the discretionary-function exception applies” and therefore dismissal in such cases does not “implicat[e] the FTCA’s judgment bar.” 

The Supreme Court affirmed, relying on the explicit language of the “Exceptions” provision declaring that provisions of the FTCA, of which the judgment bar is one, “shall not apply to” the listed exceptions.  The also Court drew an analogy to common-law claim preclusion, explaining that a dismissal on the merits would have triggered the judgment bar because it “would have given him a fair chance to recover damages for his beating.”   

At least two other Sixth Circuit decisions have already been reversed this term: Sheriff v. Gillie and White v. Wheeler.  We have previously blogged about Supreme Court reversal rates among the circuits, and look forward to doing so again when all opinions for this term are issued.