Although headlines are heralding one of the latest Supreme Court decisions as something that makes it “easier” to sue the federal government, “easier” might not be quite the right word to use.
In United States v. Kwai Fun Wong, the Supreme Court held that if a good reason exists for missing any of two deadlines to file a claim against the government under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), then the person should be able to file their claim.
This doesn’t necessarily make it easier to file a claim against the government, but it would seem to make it fairer for those faced with extraordinary circumstances. Huzzah, for equity!
What happened in the case?
The FTCA outlines the situations in which and when an individual can sue the federal government for a tort claim. (In case you’re wondering, a tort is not a delicious, sugar-laden dessert, but rather refers to a wrongful act or an infringement of a right leading to civil legal liability. Think: false imprisonment, wrongful death, medical malpractice, defective products, etc.) FYI: Learn more about torts on our personal injury site.
Under the FTCA, a tort claim against the United States “shall be forever barred” unless the claimant meets two deadlines. In United States v. Kwai Fun Wong, the United States Supreme Court looked at whether this part of the act should be upheld even if the person seeking to sue the government had a good excuse for failing to meet the deadlines.
In question were two potential claimants: Kwai Fun Wong and Marlene June. Wong failed to file her false imprisonment claim against Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) within 6 months because she said that her district court prevented her from filing within the deadline. June stated that she failed to file her wrongful death negligence claim because the government had hidden facts important to her case.
In both cases, the district courts in question said “no way” on the FTCA claims. The Ninth Circuit, then said, “Nuh uh. Yes way!” and held that if there was a good excuse for a failure to file in time, then the claimant should be able to file. Cue the Supreme Court, which delivered its decision Wednesday, April 22, 2015 with Justice Elena Kagan writing the majority opinion of the court.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court said that if a good reason for missing the deadline exists (like, I don’t know, giant aquatic monsters taking over the world because of a rift in time and space), then a person should be able to file a claim against the federal government.
The court refers to this as “equitable tolling”, basically meaning that time will not be counted against a person looking to file a claim in the interest of fairness. What’s “fair” is ultimately up to the court, something referred to as “judicial discretion”.
What are the limitations?
While the court won’t hold as strictly to these filing deadlines, this doesn’t allow a claimant to file their claim whenever it is convenient to them.
The court still wants to see a claimant who pursued his rights “diligently” but was prevented from exercising those rights by “extraordinary circumstances.” Again, think giant monster squid, or its governmental equivalent: red tape-wielding bureaucrats.
Why should I care about this case?
Like we said, while this doesn’t necessarily make it easier to sue the federal government it does provide for a Plan B just in case aquatic monsters do choose to invade while you’re in the process of filing.
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