U.S. Supreme Court Reverses Federal Torts Claim Act Dismissal Stating that Equitable Tolling Applied

The Federal Tort Claim Act (FTCA) provides that a tort claim against the United States “shall be forever barred” unless the claimant meets two deadlines. First, the claim must be presented to the appropriate federal agency for administrative review “within two years after [the] claim accrues.” 28 U.S.C. §2401(b). Second, if the agency denies the claim, the claimant may file a suit in federal court “within six months” of the agency’s denial. Id.

In this United States Supreme Court decision, Kwai Fun Wong and Marlene June, respondents in Nos. 13-1074 and 13-1075, respectively, each missed one of those deadlines. Wong failed to file her FTCA claim in federal court within 6 months, but argued that was only because the District Court had not permitted her to file that claim until after the period expired. June failed to present her FTCA claim to the federal agency within 2 years, but argued that her untimely filing should be excused because the government had, in her view, concealed facts vital to her claim.

In each of these cases, the District Court dismissed the FTCA claim for failure to satisfy §2401(b)’s time bars, holding that, despite any justification for delay, those time bars are jurisdictional and not subject to equitable tolling. The Ninth Circuit reversed in both cases, concluding that §2401(b)’s time bars may be equitably tolled.

The Supreme Court relied on a case of Irwin v. Department of Veteran Affairs, 498 U.S. 89, which provided the framework for deciding the applicability of equitable tolling to statutes of limitations on suits against the government. There, the court adopted a “rebuttable presumption” that such time bars may be equitably tolled. Id., at 95. The Irwin’s presumption may be rebutted. The court will not conclude that a time bar is jurisdictional unless Congress provides a “clear statement” to that effect. In applying that clear statement rule, this court has said that most time bars, even if mandatory and emphatic, are nonjurisdictional. Congress thus must do something special to tag a statute of limitations as jurisdictional and so prohibit a court from tolling it.

Congress did no such thing in enacting §2401(b). The text of that decision speaks only to a claim’s timeliness; it does not refer to the jurisdiction of a District Court or address those courts’ authority to hear untimely suits. See Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 515.

The Supreme Court stated that the government’s two principal arguments for treating §2401(b) as jurisdictional are unpersuasive and foreclosed by this court’s precedents.

Unlike any other waivers of sovereign immunity, the FTCA treats the government much like a private party, and the court has accordingly declined to construe the act narrowly merely because it waives the government’s immunity from suit. There is no reason to do differently here.

The U.S. Supreme Court therefore affirmed the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision and remanded the case. The opinion of the court was delivered by Justice Kagan in which Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor joined. There was a dissenting opinion filed by Justice Alito and joined by Justices Roberts, Scalia and Thomas.

United States v. Kwai Fun Wong, No. 13-1074 (U.S. S. Ct. decided April 22, 2015).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling medical malpractice cases, Federal Tort Claims Act cases, birth injury cases and nursing home abuse cases for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 38 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including River Forest, Rosemont, Riverdale, Bensenville, Bolingbrook, Aurora, Joliet, Waukegan, Elgin, St. Charles, Geneva, Hinsdale, Huntley, Plainview, Palos Heights, Palos Hills, Kenilworth, Palatine, Gurnee, Round Lake Beach, Crystal Lake, Grayslake, Flossmoor, Hillside, Elmwood Park, Melrose Park, Maywood and Worth, Ill.

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