Dealing with the government can sometimes be a daunting task. Whether trying to get a question answered by the IRS or simply attempting to find the right postage on a package at the post office, the bureaucracy and red tape can frustrate the calmest person. When the stakes are high, such as trying to bring a lawsuit against the government for negligence, government delays and red tape can be fatal as a delay can extend beyond the time a plaintiff is allowed to file suit (for more information about how long an Illinois plaintiff has to file a lawsuit, see our earlier post on Illinois’ statute of limitations). On Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court made things a little easier for potential plaintiffs facing these hurdles and the Court’s decision should have wide-reaching effects on a variety of claims.
Any lawsuit brought against the government must follow the rules set forth in a law called the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). The FTCA lays out multiple procedural steps that must be taken before filing a claim. Generally, this involves filing a claim with the federal agency involved in the action within two years of the incident at issue. If the federal agency denies the claim, the plaintiff generally has six months to file a lawsuit. 28 U. S. C. §2401(b). Prior to yesterday’s ruling, if a plaintiff sought information from the government about a potential claim, and the government took more than two years to provide that information, the claim would have been barred under the FTCA.
This was the issue analyzed yesterday in United States v. June. This case stemmed from a wrongful death lawsuit filed after an individual was killed in an auto accident. The plaintiff claimed a defective highway safety barrier ultimately caused the death. As ABC News reports, Marlene June, acting on behalf of the child of one of the decedents, diligently sought to depose officials from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) about the barrier. The FHWA delayed the depositions well beyond the two-year time period allowed by the FTCA. When the depositions finally occurred, officials admitted that the defective barrier had been installed despite previously failing a safety test. Ms. June filed a wrongful death claim with the FHWA and the claim was denied. She immediately filed suit but the suit was dismissed because the time period to bring a claim had elapsed under the FTCA.
Writing for a 5-4 majority, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan held that the time limitation under the FTCA is not an absolute bar and judges have the discretion to extend the limitation period under the theory of equitable tolling. Kagan describes equitable tolling as an instance where a court “may pause the running of a limitations statute… when a party has pursued his rights diligently but some extraordinary circumstance prevents him from meeting a deadline.” U.S. v. June, 575 U.S. ____ (2015). Applied here, because Ms. June diligently attempted to investigate the defective barrier but was unable to receive a reasonable answer from the government within the two-year period, the time period could be tolled on equitable grounds and the lawsuit could proceed.
This ability to toll the time period may have a far-reaching impact. ABC News notes that a number of veterans groups will benefit from this decision as medical malpractice and other negligence claims against the government often miss the filing deadline because of the confusing administrative process for filing claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs. The ruling also impacts immigration and deportation issues. The same rationale discussed above was applied to United States v. Wong. This decision held that a woman facing deportation could continue her lawsuit against the government despite the claim being brought after the appropriate time period under the FTCA. In Ms. Wong’s case, the delay was not of her doing but rather the result of a federal court failing to issue a ruling that would have allowed the plaintiff to file her claim. The court again extended the time period under the theory of equitable tolling because the delay was fault of the federal court rather than the plaintiff.
While a plaintiff should not unnecessarily delay in filing a claim, if the government causes the delay, relief from the statute of limitations may be available under the doctrine of equitable tolling.