In the United States, all governmental bodies, from a local municipality to the federal government, are granted a level of immunity from lawsuits brought by citizens. In 1946, the Federal Tort Claims Act was codified, which provided citizens who suffered an injury due to the wrongful behavior of a federal employee a mechanism for bringing claims against the United States. One of the elements of the FTCA allows citizens to bring claims against the government for “intentional torts” (intentional wrongful behaviors) of federal employees.
In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Millbrook v. United States which dealt with the FTCA and how the exception for intentional torts applied to law enforcement officers. Justice Kennedy delivered the unanimous opinion in favor of Millbrook, a prisoner who claimed he was sexually assaulted by correction officers and wished to bring a civil claim for his injuries.
The FTCA permits plaintiffs to bring a claim in federal district court against a federal employee for tortious conduct committed by the employee while the employee is “acting within the scope of his office or employment.” Millbrook v. United States, 569 U.S. (2013) (internal quotations omitted) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1)). This waiver is not unlimited however, and certain exceptions apply, including one for intentional torts.
In 1974, Congress created an exception to the intentional torts exception, (yes, you read that right), called the law enforcement proviso. This proviso “extends the waiver of sovereign immunity to claims for six intentional torts, including assault and battery, that are based on the ‘acts or omissions of investigative or law enforcement officers.'” Id. (citing § 2680(h)). Under the proviso, ‘investigative and law enforcement officer’ are defined as “‘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.'” Id.
Millbrook contends that in March of 2010 he was sexually assaulted and verbally threatened by correctional officers while in their custody. Millbrook filed a lawsuit under the FTCA for compensatory damages. The district court found that the law enforcement proviso only excepted actions by law enforcement officers when they were doing so specific actions, namely executing searches, seizing evidence or making arrests. Millbrook appealed and the Third Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling. The case was then appealed to the Supreme Court.
Finding in favor of Millbrook, the Court stated:
“The plain language of the law enforcement proviso answers when a law enforcement officer’s “acts or omissions” may give rise to an actionable tort claim under the FTCA. The proviso specifies that the conduct must arise from one of the six enumerated intentional torts and, by expressly cross-referencing § 1346(b), indicates that the law enforcement officer’s “acts or omissions” must fall “within the scope of his office or employment.” §§ 2680(h), 1346(b)(1). Nothing in the text further qualifies the category of “acts or omissions” that may trigger FTCA liability.”Id.
The court goes on to state that the limitations lower courts have read into the proviso are incorrect. The court asserts that the 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.” Id. Accordingly, the court held that “the waiver effected by the law enforcement proviso extends to acts or omissions of law enforcement officers that arise within the scope of their employment, regardless of whether the officers are engaged in investigative or law enforcement activity, or are executing a search, seizing evidence, or making an arrest.” Id.
The court then reversed and remanded the case to the Third Circuit for further proceedings “consistent with this opinion.”