Massachusetts Federal Court Holds Prisoner Tort Claim Barred by Statute

In a Massachusetts tort case, a prisoner who was incarcerated at FMC Devens filed a pleading captioned as a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2241. He alleged that while he was incarcerated at FCC Butner, prison staff members negligently failed to secure his personal property while he was in the special housing unit. As a result, his property was stolen. On March 3, 2017, he filed with the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP“) an administrative tort claim concerning the loss of his property. The government denied the claim, concluding that there was not any evidence of negligence on the part of any BOP staff member. The plaintiff sought $663.95 in damages.

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The U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts held that the pleading failed both as a habeas and as a tort action. This blog post will focus exclusively on the tort issue.

The Federal Employees Reform and Tort Compensation Act of 1988, or the “Westfall Act,” 28 U.S.C. § 2679(b), provides that a lawsuit against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA“) is the exclusive remedy for property loss, injuries, or death arising or resulting from the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the government while acting within the scope of his office.

The FTCA exempts a range of intentional torts. However, the FTCA does not exempt intentional torts committed by investigative officers or law enforcement officers, thereby permitting individuals aggrieved by the actions of law enforcement officers to have their day in court. The Supreme Court affirmed this so-called “law enforcement provision” in Millbrook v. United States. There, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the law enforcement provision of the FTCA applies to all of the activities of law enforcement officers within the scope of their employment, rather than just to their investigative or law enforcement activities.

The FTCA carves out certain exceptions to the United States’ waiver of sovereign immunity for torts committed by federal employees. One clause of the act provides that the waiver of sovereign immunity does not apply to claims stemming from the seizure of property by any excise or customs officer or any other law enforcement officer. In Ali v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, the plaintiff argued that this clause applied exclusively to law enforcement officers enforcing excise or customs laws, and therefore it did not affect the waiver of sovereign immunity for a property claim against BOP officers. The U.S. Supreme Court concluded that the broad phrase “any other law enforcement officer” covered all law enforcement officers.

In the current case, the district court held the plaintiff’s cause of action fell within this waiver exclusion of the FTCA. For the purposes of the FTCA, a BOP officer is a “law enforcement officer.” Furthermore, “any claim arising in respect of’ the detention of goods means any claim ‘arising out of’ the detention of goods, and includes a claim resulting from negligent handling or storage of detained property.” Here, the claim that BOP officers negligently failed to protect his property from theft while he was in segregation was a claim arising out of the negligent handling or storage of his property. The 10th Circuit has barred a claim against a BOP officer who allegedly allowed inmates to rifle through and steal the property of an inmate who was in segregation.

For these reasons, the action was dismissed.

If you or a loved one was harmed by another party’s negligence while in law enforcement custody, you may need the assistance of a civil rights lawyer to seek compensation. At the Neumann Law Group, our Massachusetts attorneys provide trustworthy legal representation to victims all over the state. Contact us toll-free at 800-525-NEUMANN or use our online form to set up a free consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Massachusetts Appeals Court Rejects Indemnification for Subcontractors Following Construction Accident, Neumann Law Group, October 10, 2017.

State Appeals Court Upholds Ruling for Plaintiff Following Hospital Slip & Fall, Neumann Law Group, September 21, 2017.

Massachusetts Appeals Courts Holds Police Not Immunized for Canine Attack, Neumann Law Group, July 31, 2017.

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