The Supreme Court reversed an appeals court ruling that sided with a civil rights plaintiff on Thursday, but lawyers for the man beaten by officers are encouraged by what they see as a path to victory left open by the justices.
In a technical ruling, a unanimous high court said the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit was wrong to let James King’s suit proceed on the grounds that it did.
Yet King’s lawyers with the Institute for Justice are casting the apparent loss as a win.
“Although today’s decision appears at first glance to deal a blow to constitutional accountability, in reality, the Supreme Court teed up the central issue in this case for the federal appeals court to reconsider,” the Institute’s Patrick Jaicomo, who argued the case for King, said in a statement.
“I am happy with the outcome,” King said in the statement. “The fight continues, and this time on our terms. I’m looking forward to being back in court. The officers who assaulted me are not above the law and neither is anyone else, simply by virtue of being employed by the government.”
And though King’s fight isn’t over, the decision is far from a win for civil rights plaintiffs generally.
The ruling “provides a clear path to the relief that he deserves,” said Jonathan Feinberg, vice president of the National Police Accountability Project. The group filed an amicus brief along with the Cato Institute supporting King.
“That said, the court’s ruling does have a significant impact on civil rights litigation in the future,” said Feinberg, a litigator with Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin in Philadelphia.
“The court’s ruling unfortunately will provide the government with a powerful method to prevent victims of misconduct at the hands of federal officers from holding them accountable,” Feinberg said.
The Justice Department, which represented the officers, declined comment.
In 2014, two plainclothes members of an FBI joint fugitive task force misidentified King. A Grand Rapids, Mich., police detective and an FBI special agent wearing their badges on lanyards stopped him. King says he thought he was being mugged and tried to flee before the officers beat him.
King sued the officers under Bivens, the 1971 Supreme Court case that authorizes suits against federal officers for rights violations. At the same time, he sued the U.S. government under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The district court dismissed Kings claims.
His Supreme Court case concerned the interplay between those two claims, and whether the dismissal of the FTCA claims blocks his Bivens claims. At issue was the FTCA’s “judgment bar,” which says FTCA judgments block any action involving the same subject matter against the federal employee whose act gave rise to the claim.
The Sixth Circuit said the district court’s dismissal of King’s FTCA claims didn’t trigger the judgment bar to block his Bivens claims, because King’s failure to establish all elements of his FTCA claims had deprived the court of subject-matter jurisdiction.
But the district court’s order was a judgment on the merits of the FTCA claims that can trigger the judgment bar, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court, reversing the Sixth Circuit.
“While waiving sovereign immunity so parties can sue the United States directly for harms caused by its employees, the FTCA made it more difficult to sue the employees themselves by adding a judgment bar provision,” Thomas wrote.
Footnote Hope, Sotomayor
The Institute points to a footnote in Thomas’ opinion as cause for optimism.
Noting King’s argument that the judgment bar doesn’t apply to a dismissal of claims raised in the same suit, Thomas said the Sixth Circuit can address that on remand.
King’s lawyers likewise point to a concurrence by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in which she stressed that the court “does not today decide whether an order resolving the merits of an FTCA claim precludes other claims arising out of the same subject matter in the same suit.”
Many lower courts have “uncritically” held the FTCA’s judgment bar applies to claims brought in the same action, but there are “reasons to question that conclusion,” Sotomayor said.
“When we go back to the Sixth Circuit, this should not be a close call,” Jaicomo said. “As Justice Sotomayor said in her concurrence, the government argues for a significant departure from the normal operation of common law, and the Sixth Circuit will now get the opportunity to make it absolutely clear.”
The case is Brownback v. King, U.S., No. 19-546.