Supreme Court rules for pro se prisoner in sovereign immunity case

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled unanimously Wednesday in Millbrook v. US [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] that the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) [28 USC § 1346] and exceptions [28 USC § 2680(h)] to it, waive the immunity of prison guards who commit intentional torts that are within the scope of their authority. The text of 28 USC § 2680 lists exceptions for which the FTCA will not compel immunity, and (h) includes: "Any claim arising out of assault, battery, false imprisonment, false arrest, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, libel, slander, misrepresentation, deceit, or interference with contract rights ... 'investigative or law enforcement officer' means any officer of the United States who is empowered by law to execute searches, to seize evidence, or to make arrests for violations of Federal law." The court held that this includes correctional officers, and they do not have to be in the process of of executing a search, seizing evidence, or making an arrest to be liable for an intentional tort. Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the opinion of the court:

The FTCA's only reference to "searches," "seiz[ures of] evidence," and "arrests" is found in the statutory definition of "investigative or law enforcement officer." By its terms, this provision 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. Consequently, there is no basis for concluding that a law enforcement officer's intentional tort must occur in the course of executing a search, seizing evidence, or making an arrest in order to subject the United States to liability.
The court settled a circuit split on the issue and reversed [opinion] a grant of summary judgment by the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

Kim Millbrook is an inmate at the US Penitentiary, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and alleged that several male correctional officers sexually assaulted him. His suit will now be able to proceed on its merits. His attorney praised the decision [NPR report] and suggested the reality that FTCA could provide damage awards for Federal prisoners will decreases instances of prisoner abuse. Millbrook's attorney was appointed after cert was granted, as Millbrook filed in forma pauperis and hand wrote his certiorari petition [cert. petition].

 

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