Brownback v. King

Justia Summary

The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) allows a plaintiff to bring certain state-law tort claims against the United States for torts committed by federal employees acting within the scope of their employment if the plaintiff alleges six statutory elements of an actionable claim, 28 U.S.C. 1346(b). The judgment in an action under section 1346(b) bars “any action by the claimant” involving the same subject matter against the federal employee whose act gave rise to the claim. King sued the government under the FTCA after a violent encounter with federal task force members and sued the officers individually under “Bivens.” The district court dismissed his FTCA claims, holding that the government was immune because the officers were entitled to qualified immunity under Michigan law, then dismissed King’s Bivens claims. The Sixth Circuit found that the dismissal of King’s FTCA claims did not trigger the judgment bar to block his Bivens claims.

A unanimous Supreme Court reversed. The dismissal was a judgment on the merits of the FTCA claims that can trigger the judgment bar, similar to common-law claim preclusion. Whether the undisputed facts established all the elements of King’s FTCA claims is a quintessential merits decision. The court also determined that it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction because, in the unique context of the FTCA, all elements of a meritorious claim are also jurisdictional. Generally, a court may not issue a ruling on the merits when it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, but when pleading a claim and pleading jurisdiction entirely overlap, a ruling that the court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction may simultaneously be a judgment on the merits.