The Fourth Circuit decided today in Ignacio v. United States that the Federal Tort Claims Act waives the immunity of the United States for intentional torts committed by law enforcement officials, regardless of whether the official was engaged in a law enforcement activity when he committed the intentional tort. Judge Floyd wrote the opinion for the court, which was joined in by Judge Shedd and Judge Diaz. Judge Diaz also authored a separate concurrent. According to the opinions, the decision creates a circuit split with the Third and Ninth Circuits. See Orsay v. United States, 289 F.3d 1125, 1134 (9th Cir. 2002); Pooler v. United States, 787 F.2d 868, 871-72 (3d Cir. 1986).
The case arises out of a dispute on December 2, 2009 between a Pentagon police officer (Lane) and a contract security officer (Ignacio) who were assigned together to the same security checkpoint for Pentagon employees. The two disagreed over the caliber of an M-16 round. “Initially, their disagreement led only to a bet. It escalated, however, on December 15, when they were again stationed at a security checkpoint for Pentagon employees. Lane allegedly told Ignacio that he would ‘hurt him after work’ and then pretended to punch him in the face.” This led to workplace discipline and, eventually, a lawsuit. The United States sought summary judgment on the basis of an exception from the FTCA’s waiver of sovereign immunity.
The FTCA (i) waives the sovereign immunity of the United States for certain torts committed by federal employees, (ii) excepts certain intentional torts from this waiver, and (iii) then excepts from this exception intentional torts committed by investigative or law enforcement officers. See 28 U.S.C. 2680(h). This exception from an exception from the waiver of sovereign immunity is known as the “law enforcement proviso.” Other circuits interpreting this proviso have limited its application to torts committed by investigative or law enforcement officers in the course of investigative or law enforcement efforts. Applying that interpretation, the district court (Judge O’Grady, EDVA) granted summary judgment to the United States.
In reversing and remanding, the Fourth Circuit faulted the other circuits for “relent[ing] to secondary modes of interpretation without first establishing the ambiguity of the statutory text.” According to Judge Floyd, the text of the proviso is clear and contains no limitation of the sort read in by the other circuits.
In his separate concurrence, Judge Diaz acknowledges that the interpretation adopted by the court “leads to the anomalous situation in which the federal government could be liable for the actions of a law enforcement officer but would be immune from liability for the same conduct committed by another federal employee under the same circumstances.” This result “can be criticized as inconsistent and unreasonable,” but it is not ”so absurd as to allow us to alter the meaning–as other courts have–of an otherwise unambiguous statute.”
In light of the result and apparent circuit split, the United States may be interested in seeking additional review. Given the panel composition and outcome, the likelihood of obtaining a different ruling en banc is very low. If the Department of Justice determines that the issue is sufficiently important to seek certiorari, this case very well could end up before the Supreme Court. There are unresolved factual disputes about whether the Pentagon police officer was acting within the scope of his employment under Virginia law (a necessary predicate to liability under the FTCA), which could counsel against a grant of certiorari. Because sovereign immunity protects not simply against liability but also against having to answer in court at all, however, that consideration may carry less weight in this case.