Dolan v. United States Postal Service (04-848)


Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

Oral argument: November 7, 2005

TORT LAW, FEDERAL TORT CLAIMS ACT, SOVEREIGN IMMUNITY, POSTAL LAW, STATUTORY INTERPRETATION

Petitioner Barbara Dolan sustained serious injuries when she tripped over a stack of letters, packages, and other mail that an employee of the United States Postal Service left on her porch. She sued the United States Postal Service and the United States in federal court under the Federal Tort Claims Act, alleging that the United States Postal Service employee's negligence that led to her fall made them responsible for her injuries. The district court dismissed Dolan's complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and found that the "negligent transmission" exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act barred claims for physical injury, as well as those for damaged or delayed mail. In granting certiorari, the United States Supreme Court must determine the scope of the statutory exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act, and whether it truly extends to "any claim" arising out of negligent transmission, including those for physical injury to individuals, or whether it is limited to claims for damaged mail.

[Question(s) presented] | [Issue(s)] | [Facts] | [Discussion] | [Analysis]

Questions Presented

Does not this case – which involved a determination of whether the district court had jurisdiction over the claim of plaintiff when her injury was caused by the negligent placement of mail at the place of delivery – call for an exercise of this Court's supervisory power where there is a dispute between the circuits of the Court of Appeals as to whether the exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. ? 2680(b) barred this lawsuit and where the Third Circuit narrowly construed the Act?

top

Issues

Does the Federal Tort Claims Act's exception for "negligent transmission" of mail by employees of the United States Postal Service apply to claims of physical harm to individuals due to employee negligence in delivering mail, or is it limited to claims of mail damaged by employee negligence?

top

Facts

Barbara Dolan ("Dolan") was injured when she tripped over a stack of mail that a United States Postal Service ("USPS") employee had left in front of her house. Brief for the Respondents at 2. After filing an administrative claim with the USPS, which the USPS denied, Dolan brought an action against the United States and the USPS in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. 1346(b)(2). Brief for the Respondents at 3. In her complaint, Dolan alleged that her injuries were a result of a USPS employee's negligence, and that she suffered, among other maladies, "severe and permanent injuries to her body," as well as "mental anxiety and anguish and a severe shock to her entire nervous system." Brief for the Respondents at 3.

The United States quickly moved for dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) due to lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Id. at 3-4. In its motion, the government alleged that under the postal exception to the FTCA, 28 U.S.C. 2680(b), which states that the FTCA does not apply to "[a]ny claim" arising out of "the negligent transmission of letters or postal matter," Dolan's claim was barred. Id. at 4. The district court granted the motion, ruling that Dolan's claim fell within the exception, and was thus barred. Brief for Petitioner at 2. Dolan appealed the decision to the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Id. The appellate court affirmed the district court, holding that in light of the plain meaning and legislative history of the exception, the term "negligent transmission of letters or postal matters" constituted the period of time from the USPS's receipt of the letter or postal matter to its delivery to the intended individual. Brief for the Respondents at 4. Since Dolan's injury occurred within this period, the exception applied, and her claim was barred. Id. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve a split among the Circuit courts and determine whether the postal exception to the FTCA's waiver of sovereign immunity bars claims of physical injuries caused by negligent acts of postal employees, or if the postal exception is limited to claims of damaged mail.

top

Discussion

Dolan v. United States Postal Service is a case that may have significant effects on both the Federal government and on all individuals that receive mail in the United States. The main issue in this case is whether the exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act, providing that claims arising out of the "negligent transmission" of mail by USPS employees, applies broadly to include claims of personal injury, or if it is more limited in scope and applies only to claims of damaged mail. 

The Federal government and the USPS have much at stake in this case. Under the Third Circuit's ruling, the postal exception is very broad, and the government is shielded from immunity for any claim arising out of the "negligent transmission" of mail whether it is a person seeking relief for a package damaged due to negligent handling by the postal employee, or, as in Dolan's case, an individual physically injured due to a postal employee's negligent placement of a package on a porch. If the Supreme Court reads the statute narrowly and limits the scope of the exception only to suits involving damaged mail, however, the scope of activity for which the Federal government may be liable will greatly increase. The likelihood of increased litigation due to claims brought against the government, in addition to the increased costs and resources necessary to monitor the incredible amount of mail and personnel the USPS handles on a daily basis, could put huge strains on the government's ability to fulfill its function to unite the nation through delivery of mail.

Postal customers also have much at stake in this case, and there may be a negative impact regardless of the Court's decision. If the Court chooses to affirm the Third Circuit and give a broad interpretation to the exception, individuals such as Dolan who have been injured by a postal employee's negligence will have no remedy against the Federal government, and possibly be without any remedy at all. Americans who receive their mail through the USPS will have to accept the risk that they may be injured by an employee's negligent conduct and have no recompense. On the other hand, if the Court decides to limit the scope of the exception, customers may still suffer negative effects. To compensate for the increased costs associated with increased liability, the USPS may increase prices for stamps, insurance, or other postal services, and may even reduce or cut some of these services.   

Private courier services that compete with the USPS, such as Federal Express, also have an interest in the outcome of this case. Since the USPS no longer exclusively offers the services of delivering letters and packages, many people may feel that the USPS should be subject to the same liabilities as their competitors. If the Supreme Court chooses to limit the liability of the United States through its postal workers, private competitors will be at a disadvantage and will have to operate with additional risks and  costs that the USPS does not have to bear. See Medill School or Journalism, Northwestern University, Dolan, Barbara v. U.S. Postal Service, et al.  

top

Analysis

The doctrine of "sovereign immunity" essentially holds that the United States government cannot be sued without its consent. F.D.I.C. v. Meyer, 510 U.S. 471, 475 (1994). However, Congress passed the Federal Tort Claims Act in order to delineate specific circumstances in which the government would waive the protections of sovereign immunity and consent to being sued. 28 U.S.C. 1346(b)(1). As such, in passing the FTCA, Congress chose to forgo the powerful protections that the shield of sovereign immunity provides the United States government in order to provide a remedy, in the form of money damages, to individuals harmed by Federal employees. 28 U.S.C. 2674

Recognizing that the passage of the FTCA exposes the government to vast liability in a variety of circumstances, Congress sought to curb this exposure by delineating thirteen specific exceptions to the government's waiver of sovereign immunity. 28 U.S.C. ? 2680(b). These waivers shield the government from liability in areas where the government is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of a lawsuit and areas of uniquely governmental function. One of these waivers is the so-called "postal exception." This exception says that the government, or rather, the United States Postal Service ("USPS"), shall not be liable for "[a]ny claim arising out of the loss, miscarriage, or negligent transmission of letters or postal matter."  28 U.S.C. ? 2680(b) (emphasis added). This case involves the interpretation of the "postal exception." Specifically, the parties disagree over the correct interpretation of the phrase "negligent transmission" in the statutory language. 

Dolan argues that the postal exception to the FTCA barring claims for "negligent transmission" does not bar claims against mail carriers for personal injury resulting from the negligent delivery of mail. Brief for Petitioner at 3. According to Dolan, the negligent transmission bar prevents plaintiffs from bringing claims arising from the damage, delay, or loss of mail in the process of delivering the mail itself, but does not protect carriers from liability for any tort they commit simply because they were in the act of delivering mail when they committed it. Dolan finds support for this argument from the Second Circuit who, based on the reasoning and decision set forth in Raila v. United States, agrees with Dolan's interpretation. 355 F.3d 118 (2d Cir. 2004). In support of her argument, Dolan points out that the FTCA allows claims against postal employees for negligent operation of postal delivery trucks even if the vehicles are carrying mail, and thus, in the process of delivery. See Kosak v. United States, 465 U.S. 848 (1984); Brief for Petitioner at 4.

Although both the district court and the Court of Appeals below disagreed with Dolan's reading of the statute, she contends that Congress never intended for the postal exception to have the "sweeping breadth attributed to it by the court below." Brief for Petitioner at 5. Rather, she contends that the statute exempts the USPS for liability mostly with regard to the condition of mail, and not to every single activity the USPS does. By way of support, she points to the fact that if Congress had intended otherwise, it could have given the USPS the same latitude it gave other wholly exempt organizations like the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Panama Canal Company. 28 U.S.C. 2680 (l) and (m). Since it did not give the USPS this same latitude, Dolan argues Congress did not intend for the USPS to be wholly exempt.

Further, Dolan contends that the phrase "negligent transmission" has a specialized legal meaning derived from the telegraph context, and when a term has a specialized legal meaning, it should be interpreted in accordance with that meaning and not the plain language of the phrase. Brief for Petitioner at 6-7. Finally, she argues that any exception to the waiver of sovereign immunity should be strictly construed and given the most narrow meaning plausible within the language of the statute. Support for this proposition comes from the Supreme Court itself in its Kosak opinion. 465 U.S. 848 (1984). In Kosak, the court reiterated that "identifying 'those circumstances which are within the words and reason of the exception'–no less and no more" is critical to correctly interpreting an FTCA waiver. Id. at 854 (quoting Dalehite v. United States, 346 U.S. 15, 13 (1953)). In this case, Dolan argues, that the Supreme Court's statement means construing the postal exception to bar claims dealing with the condition of the mail itself, and not restricting liability when a mail carrier has committed an independent tort while in the process of delivering mail.

On the other hand, the USPS, with support from the district court and the Court of Appeals, argues that the incident in question falls directly within the plain meaning of the postal exception language of the FTCA. That is, that the negligent delivery of mail on Dolan's porch falls clearly within the "negligent transmission" part of the postal exception. According to the USPS, Congress designed this exception to limit its liability, thereby allowing it to perform the "vital federal function" of delivering thousands of pieces of mail as efficiently and inexpensively as possible, a function that would not be possible if the USPS were vulnerable to suit in the performance of its regular duties. Brief for the Respondents at 5, 8. The USPS relies heavily on the basic and long-standing definition of "transmission" as "the transfer or delivery of items.from one person to another" Brief for the Respondents at 5. The USPS further argues, that the postal exception is written to protect the function of delivering mail, not to define the type of injury suffered. Id. at 5.

As such, the USPS contends that by leaving mail on Dolan's porch, it was transferring mail from one person and delivering it to another. By characterizing the USPS employee's actions in this case as the "delivery of mail," the behavior would fall clearly within the plain language of the statute, and, the argument goes, where the plain language of the law protects the USPS's immunity, the resulting claim should be barred. Brief for the Respondents at 13. Further, since the FTCA was written broadly to allow claims, the clearly delineated exceptions to the government's waiver of sovereign immunity should be carefully construed. In addressing Dolan's arguments, the USPS points out that this case is wholly unrelated to cases involving postal delivery trucks (where liability is allowed) and cases involving telegraphs, where "at least some types of personal injury claims caused by.delivery" are allowed under the FTCA. Brief for the Respondents at 6.

top

Conclusion

The Supreme Court's decision here will have broad implications for the United States Postal Service. On the one hand, if the Court sides with Dolan, postal carriers throughout the country will be required by law to exercise caution in the placement of mail, or else the United States Postal Service will face liability and the mail carrier's job will be in jeopardy. Such a result might yield mail delivery that is both slower and more expensive as the United States Postal Service tries to avoid incidents like this in the future. On the other hand, shielding the United States Postal Service from liability means that Ms. Dolan will have to bear the cost of her injuries alone, and no incentives will be put in place to encourage the United States Postal Service to be more cautious in the daily execution of its duty to deliver mail—a critical duty to our nation's citizens and its economy.

top

Authors

Prepared by: Daniel Fisch and Micaela McMurrough

Additional Sources

top