Can a two-year time limit for bringing a tort claim against the federal government be extended in situations where a claimant, despite exercising due diligence, could not have discovered the injury within that time window?
In 2010, Marlene June brought an administrative claim against the Federal Highway Administration (“FHWA”) under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2401(b), which the FHWA eventually denied. June then filed a wrongful-death suit against the government, which the district court dismissed as untimely because it was filed after the FTCA’s two-year statute of limitations period had already expired. This case turns on whether the two-year statute of limitations is subject to “equitable tolling,” wherein the statute of limitations does not begin to run for a plaintiff who, exercising due diligence, could not have discovered the injury in time to file. This case thus presents the Supreme Court with an opportunity address the ability of agencies to administer claims.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether the two-year time limit for filing an administrative claim with the appropriate federal agency under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. 2401(b), is subject to equitable tolling.
The Respondent in this case is Marlene June. She brought suit on behalf of her grandchild, the surviving child of her deceased son Andrew Edward Booth. In February of 2005, Booth was traveling in a car on an Arizona highway. After the car crossed a “cable median barrier” and was struck by oncoming traffic, Booth passed away. June brought a wrongful death suit in 2006 in state court, alleging negligence on the parts of both the State of Arizona and the contractor who installed the median barrier. June claims that during the state court action and up until 2009, Federal Highway Administration (“FHWA”) officials prevented her from deposing certain people with knowledge of the barrier’s functionality.
It was not until December of 2010 that June filed a Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”) under 28 U.S.C. § 2401(b) against the FHWA. After the FHWA denied her claim, June brought the present suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona (“district court”). In the district court, the United States argued that June was barred from bringing suit because Booth’s accident occurred in 2005, and she therefore failed to meet the two-year deadline for filing a claim under the FTCA. In response, June argued the court should equitably toll the two-year limitations period because the government concealed evidence that she needed to present her case within that time limit. The district court ruled in favor of the government and rejected June’s equitable tolling argument. The district court held that a federal statute of limitations is not subject to equitable tolling because it is jurisdictional (i.e., it limits a court’s power to hear the case); here, the FTCA is jurisdictional because it limits “the scope of a governmental waiver of sovereign immunity.”
June then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (“Ninth Circuit”). After June filed her appeal but before her case was decided, the Ninth Circuit issued its opinion in Wong v. Beebe. In Wong, the Ninth Circuit found that the FTCA is not jurisdictional and that a court may equitably toll its time limitation periods. Applying Wong to the facts of June’s lawsuit, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court. On June 30, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari.
This case presents the Supreme Court with an opportunity to examine statutory construction and precedent to determine if equitable tolling applies to Federal Tort Claims Act cases. The United States argues that equitable tolling should not apply to the FTCA’s two-year limit for presenting a claim to the appropriate federal agency because the time limit acts as part of an inflexible jurisdictional requirement. June argues that forbidding equitable tolling for FTCA claims would run counter to Congress’s well-established presumption in favor of tolling and the Court’s long line of precedent confirming this presumption.
IS THE TWO-YEAR TIME LIMIT A JURISDICTIONAL REQUIREMENT?
The United States contends that although there is generally a presumption in favor of equitable tolling in federal statutes with a time limit, plaintiffs can overcome this presumption by showing that the time limit is a jurisdictional restriction. By first looking at the plain language of the FTCA, the United States points out that the statute lacks exceptions or conditions to the two-year requirement, and rather contains a “jurisdictional consequence” to missing the deadline. According to the United States, the language “shall be forever barred”—found in the FTCA—requires the dismissal of any untimely claim, and thus serves as a restriction on federal court jurisdiction. The United States points out that this language goes further than typical statutes of limitation that merely state that a claim must be brought within a certain amount of time. According to the United States, this language mandates that a plaintiff bring the claim in two years or risk their claim being permanently barred from all courts everywhere. The United States also presents the history of the FTCA as evidence of this interpretation, pointing particularly to the initial 1946 version of the law in which federal court jurisdiction was “exclusive,” but conditioned upon a claimant’s compliance with the time limit. The United States proffers the 1966 amendments as well, arguing that the 1966 version of the FTCA was enacted as a response to the Court’s decision in Soriano v. United States, denying equitable tolling, as well as other federal courts of appeals decisions reaching a similar result. The 1966 FTCA retained the same limiting language as the 1946 FTCA, the United States says, thus Congress in the 1966 version of the law intentionally chose not to override the Court’s Soriano interpretation denying equitable tolling.
June rejects the contention that the FTCA’s time limit is jurisdictional. June points to the historic presumption in favor of equitable tolling, and concludes that if Congress wished to disallow tolling, it would have said so expressly. June argues that the presumption in favor of equitable tolling is a heavy burden to overcome, and although a defendant can rebut this presumption by showing that the time limit is a jurisdictional feature, a “clear indication” from Congress is required. June says that the assertion of a jurisdictional limitation must be clear in general, but must also be clear on the fact that the jurisdictional restriction applies to presenting administrative claims as well. June points to FDIC v. Meyer, in which the Court actually examined the jurisdictional features of the FTCA. June demonstrates that the Court found that the FTCA’s jurisdictional provision is section 1346(b) of the FTCA (not at issue here), which contains six elements required for establishing whether the district court has jurisdiction over the claim. June points out that a time limit is not among those elements. June also argues that section 2401, which contains the time limit, does not mention jurisdiction at all. Additionally, in response to the United States’ Soriano argument, June counters that Soriano dealt with a time limit for bringing actions in front of a Court of Claims. June argues that Courts of Claims have very limited jurisdiction and do not exercise any equity power (which includes the ability to equitably toll). On the other hand, June states that the FTCA requires federal district courts to hear FTCA actions, and district courts historically do have the power to employ equitable remedies like tolling. Finally, June concedes that there is no language in the FTCA explicitly allowing for tolling, but responds that the entire point of having a presumption in favor of equitable tolling is so that Congress does not have to repeat itself in every federal statute.
Additionally, the United States argues that the FTCA was enacted as a carve-out to the United States’ customary sovereign immunity. Although the United States typically cannot be sued, it can give consent to be sued in statutes like the FTCA and thus waive sovereign immunity. Congress codifies that waiver in the text of the statute and conditions it upon a particular time limit for bringing claims to limit the United States’ liability. The United States contends that conditions on waivers of sovereign immunity have always been treated as jurisdictional requirements, and the FTCA time limitation is precisely this type of conditioned waiver to sovereign immunity.
On the point of sovereign immunity, June presents the Irwin decision in which the Court decided that sovereign immunity concerns are not enough overcome the presumption in favor of equitable tolling. June claims that the Irwin holding establishes that although equitable tolling chips away at the outer bounds of the government’s waiver of sovereign immunity, any broadening of the scope is too small to be problematic.
IS A JURISDICTIONAL INTERPRETATION CONSISTENT WITH CONGRESSIONAL INTENT AND PREVIOUS INTERPRETATIONS OF SIMILAR LANGUAGE?
The United States argues that when determining whether the time limit is jurisdictional, a common tool of statutory interpretation is examining congressional intent; a party can discern congressional intent by examining the Court’s interpretation of similar or identical language in the past. The United States points to language in the Tucker Act that is nearly identical to that in the FTCA, and argues that the Court has interpreted the Tucker Act language as unequivocally jurisdictional. In addition to the Tucker Act, the United States offers “at least six separate occasions” where Congress used the phrase “shall be forever barred” in a statute to impose a time limit. The United States claims that the Court has since construed this language to impose a jurisdictional requirement, and thus equitable tolling does not apply. The United States notes that earlier incarnations of the Tucker Act tracking similar language contain explicit authorization of equitable tolling or other exceptions, whereas the FTCA does not. According to the United States, the Court declared that the absence of tolling or an exception indicates a deliberate congressional choice rather than an accidental omission. Thus, the United States argues, the lack of an equitable tolling provision in the FTCA means that Congress did not intend for equitable tolling to apply. Additionally, the United States points out that the 1988 FTCA amendment contemplates that the agency may deny a tort victim’s claim where federal employees were acting within the scope of their employment. The victim is then permitted to sue in court later, and subsection b allows this suit to proceed under certain conditions. Thus, the United States argues that Congress has only allowed this narrow exception to the time limit, and only intended to allow extra time for claimants to bring suit in one particular circumstance (not others).
June argues that a congressional intent to allow equitable tolling is very easily discerned from the Court’s “venerable” precedent interpreting time limits throughout U.S. history. June contends that the presumption in favor of tolling has been around since 1875. June describes how the Court first established the presumption in Bailey v. Glover, then “formally enshrined” the presumption in Exploration Co. v. United States nearly one hundred years ago. June goes on to say that the Court reaffirmed the presumption in favor of equitable tolling in Holmberg v. Armbrecht approximately six months before the original FTCA was passed, and again before the 1966 amendments in Glus v. Brooklyn E. Dist. Terminal. June traces this history to demonstrate that the Court has consistently recognized the federal district courts’ equitable tolling power, undisturbed absent a clear signal from Congress. June disagrees with the United States’ reliance on the Tucker Act comparison, arguing that the phrase “forever barred,” on which the United States fixates, is not what drives Tucker Act jurisprudence. June states that Tucker Act suits come before a Court of Claims, and as described above, Courts of Claims do not have the same equity power that federal district courts do. Therefore, June argues, any comparison to Tucker Act time limit interpretations is a false comparison. Finally, June discerns congressional intent from the statute’s structure and legislative history. June argues that the FTCA was designed from the outset to be claimant friendly and fair toward parties injured by “the misfeasance of [government] employees.” To this end, June claims, Congress allows agencies to exercise easy and informal methods for accepting the claim and potentially transferring it to a more appropriate agency. June contends that in this fair and friendly environment, there is no reason to think that Congress would cast aside the presumption in favor of equitable tolling.
This case presents the Supreme Court with an opportunity to decide whether a court may equitably toll the FTCA’s two-year statute of limitations period. Both parties argue their interpretations of the statute best honor Congress’s intent in enacting the FTCA. And, ultimately, the Court’s resolution of these questions could substantially impact how courts treat FTCA claims that fall outside the statute’s two-year limitations period.
EFFECTS ON AGENCIES’ ABILITY TO EFFICIENTLY ADMINISTER CLAIMS
The United States urges the Court to consider how equitable tolling would impact the administrative agencies that receive FTCA claims. The United States believes that because agencies are confronted with such a high volume of claims, strict enforcement of the two-year limitations period helps ensure that the agencies are not overburdened. Moreover, the United States believes that permitting equitable tolling would frustrate an agency’s ability to properly assess a claim. If an agency rejects a claim as untimely, according to the United States, it risks a court subsequently tolling the limitations period and addressing the merits on its own (rather than the agency). And alternatively, the United States argues, if the agency entertains a tolling argument, the agency would expend resources on an inquiry it is not institutionally equipped to make.
June, however, counters this argument by comparing the volume of FTCA claims with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) claims under Title VII. The EEOC faces nearly 100,000 claims per year—much more than those arising under the FTCA—and yet the Court has previously held that EEOC claims may be equitably tolled. Moreover, June emphasizes, FTCA claims are different because they are dispersed across many different agencies. She argues that, for these reasons, equitable tolling would not have the negative administrative effects that the United States suggests. Writing in support of June and countering the United States’ administrative efficiency argument, amicus Professor of Law Gregory C. Sisk believes that prohibiting equitable tolling would in fact impose its own burden on the courts. Specifically, Sisk argues that if the two-year limitations period were jurisdictional, and not subject to waiver, courts would be obligated to always raise and evaluate the limitations question.
June also disagrees with the United States’ argument that agencies do not have the expertise to decide questions of equitable tolling. Quite simply, June states that the federal courts of appeals have permitted tolling for twenty years and agencies have evidently had little trouble adapting.
FRUSTRATING CONGRESSIONAL INTENT
The United States also argues that equitable tolling would undermine Congress’s intent in enacting the FTCA. Specifically, the United States contends that when an agency denies a claim as untimely, the agency may be effectively ceding its ability to settle the claim to the courts. This is problematic, the United States argues, because the agency is meant to have priority in addressing the claim. In sum, the United States believes that equitable tolling of FTCA claims would cause “serious administrative problems” and waste agency resources.
Conversely, June makes a congressional intent argument of her own—specifically, that the FTCA was always meant to permit equitable tolling. When Congress enacted the FTCA, she argues, Congress wanted the limitations period to be consistent with those in other areas of law, which are almost always subject to equitable tolling. Sisk makes a related point; in drafting the FTCA, Congress took language directly from state statutes of limitations that favored equitable tolling. And when Congress incorporates state law into federal statutes, Sisk argues, those state doctrines are informative. Furthermore, if equitable tolling was prohibited, June believes this would undermine Congress’s hope that the FTCA would provide an easy mechanism for “laymen, unassisted by trained lawyers” to utilize. Sisk also supports this argument by mentioning that Congress in fact scaled back the FTCA’s limitations rules in 1966 for that very purpose.
Claims arising under the FTCA amount to roughly 15,000–30,000 each year. The Court’s decision may define the availability of relief for many of those claimants and will clarify the role of courts in confronting a claim that falls outside the FTCA’s two-year limitations period. The Court will answer the question of whether this two-year time bar acts as a jurisdictional requirement, therefore preventing the use of equitable tolling, or whether the traditional presumption in favor of equitable tolling applies to the FTCA as well.