427 F.3d 14 (1st Cir. 2005), 05-1493, Muirhead v. Mecham

Docket Nº05-1493.
Citation427 F.3d 14
Party NameJames R. MUIRHEAD, Plaintiff, Appellant, v. L. Ralph MECHAM, Director, Administrative Office of the United States Courts, Defendant, Appellee.
Case DateOctober 20, 2005
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

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427 F.3d 14 (1st Cir. 2005)

James R. MUIRHEAD, Plaintiff, Appellant,

v.

L. Ralph MECHAM, Director, Administrative Office of the United States Courts, Defendant, Appellee.

No. 05-1493.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

October 20, 2005 [*]

Heard Sept. 15, 2005.

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE, Hon. Ronald R. Lagueux, Senior U.S. District Judge

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Peter D. Anderson, with whom McLane, Graf, Raulerson & Middleton, P.A. was on brief, for appellant.

Catherine Y. Hancock, Attorney, Appellate Staff, with whom Peter D. Keisler, Assistant Attorney General, Civil Division, Thomas P. Colantuono, United States Attorney, and Michael S. Raab, Attorney, Appellate Staff, were on brief, for appellee.

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Before Selya and Lynch, Circuit Judges, and Restani, [**] Judge.

SELYA, Circuit Judge.

This case stems from a statutory interpretation by the Director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (the Director) that resulted in the exclusion of a magistrate judge from the Judicial Survivors' Annuities System (JSAS). The judge challenged the correctness of the Director's interpretation in the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire. After determining that it had jurisdiction to adjudicate the matter, the district court upheld the Director's interpretation and dismissed the action for failure to state a claim. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12 (b) (6). We conclude that the Director's actions were the acts of the sovereign and, therefore, immune from scrutiny in the district court. Consequently, we vacate the dismissal of the complaint and remand for the entry of an order of dismissal, without prejudice, for want of subject-matter jurisdiction.

The facts are not in dispute. Plaintiff-appellant James R. Muirhead is a United States Magistrate Judge in and for the District of New Hampshire. The district court initially appointed him to an eight-year term beginning September 1, 1995. In recognition of his meritorious service, the court named him to a second eight-year term beginning September 1, 2003. He continued his tenure as a magistrate judge without any break in service.

When Congress first enacted the JSAS, only Article III judges were eligible to participate. Congress later amended the statute to extend eligibility to bankruptcy and magistrate judges. See Retirement and Survivors' Annuities for Bankruptcy Judges and Magistrates Act of 1988, Pub. L. No. 100-659, 102 Stat. 3910 (codified at 28 U.S.C. § 376(a)(1)(F)). The JSAS pays an annuity to surviving spouses and dependent children of enrolled judges. 28 U.S.C. § 376 (h) . The amount of the annuity is based on factors such as the participant's salary, years of creditable service, and years of contribution to the JSAS. Id. § 376(l) . Participant contributions, in the form of payroll deductions and payments to cover prior creditable service, fund roughly fifty percent of the JSAS and government contributions fund the remainder. See id. § 376 (b)- (d), (w) .

Participation in the JSAS is voluntary. See id. § 376 (a) (1) . The statutory scheme contains a number of contingencies covering enrollment. The contingency at issue here stipulates that, in order to enroll in the JSAS, a judge must furnish written notice to the Director of his or her intention to do so "within six months after . . . the date upon which he or she takes office." Id. (emphasis supplied). The controversy between the parties centers on the meaning of the phrase "takes office."

The appellant did not elect to enroll in the JSAS at the inception of his initial term as a magistrate judge. On December 18, 2003, roughly three months after his reappointment, the appellant gave the Director written notice of his intent to enter the program. The Director rejected the appellant's attempted election as untimely; although the appellant gave notice within six months of the start of his second term, the Director determined that "a magistrate judge does not have a new opportunity to elect JSAS upon reappointment to that same office." In other words, the Director interpreted the statutory phrase "takes office" to apply solely to original appointments.

The appellant did not take this rejection lightly. He filed suit in the district court

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seeking a declaratory judgment that his election was effective and a writ of mandamus to compel the Director to accept it. He maintained that a magistrate judge "takes office" anew whenever he or she is reappointed to an additional eight-year term. This interpretation would grant a magistrate judge a six-month window to elect into the JSAS not only after his or her initial appointment but also after each successive reappointment. That would mean, then, that the appellant's election was timely and the Director had no discretion to reject it.

The Director moved to dismiss the action on two grounds. First, he contended that principles of sovereign immunity barred the maintenance of the appellant's claim. Second, he contended that, even if the district court was competent to act, the complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted because the Director had correctly construed the statutory term "takes office." The district court rejected the sovereign immunity defense out of hand, but concluded that, under the JSAS statute, a magistrate judge only "takes office" upon his or her initial appointment. On that basis, the court granted the Director's motion to dismiss.

On appeal, both parties make compelling arguments in support of their competing interpretations of the JSAS statute. Intriguing as this definitional conundrum may be, the better practice is to confirm the existence of subject-matter jurisdiction before proceeding to the merits. See, e.g., Bolduc v. United States, 402 F.3d 50, 55 (1st Cir. 2005). We follow that course.

The Director posits that the district court lacked jurisdiction over the action because the appellant's claim was barred by sovereign immunity. This proposition requires us to determine whether the Director's refusal to accept the appellant's election should be considered an act of the sovereign or, conversely, an act taken outside the bounds of the Director's authority (and, thus, outside the safe haven of sovereign immunity protection) .

It is beyond cavil that, as the sovereign, the United States is immune from suit without its consent. See United States v. Thompson, 98 U.S. 486, 489 (1878); Bolduc, 402 F.3d at 55. That consent usually takes the form of an express waiver of its sovereign immunity. Such a waiver "cannot be implied but must be unequivocally expressed." United States v. King, 395 U.S. 1, 4 (1969) . Even then, the waiver must be strictly construed. See Block v. North Dakota ex rel. Bd. of Univ. & Sch. Lands, 461 U.S. 273, 287 (1983); see also United States v. Horn, 29 F.3d 754, 762 (1st Cir. 1994) . In the absence of an applicable waiver, courts lack jurisdiction to entertain claims against the United States. United States v. Sherwood, 312 U.S. 584, 586 (1941).

The appellant contends that the district court had jurisdiction over the asserted claim because the United States has expressly waived its immunity through Congress's enactment of the federal mandamus statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1361.1 This

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argument misconstrues the nature and purpose of the mandamus statute.

The mandamus statute provides that "district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any action in the nature of mandamus to compel an officer or employee of the United States or any agency thereof to perform a duty owed to the plaintiff." Id. Because the mandamus statute applies only to officers and employees of the United States, rather than to the United States itself, the statute does not create any new cause of action against the government. It simply gives the courts jurisdiction in those instances in which substantive law already provides a remedy. Accordingly, the provisions of the mandamus statute do not waive the sovereign immunity of the United States. Coggeshall Dev. Corp. v. Diamond, 884 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1989); Doe v. Civiletti, 635 F.2d 88, 94 (2d Cir. 1980).

Nor does the sovereign immunity waiver included in the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. § 701, pertain here. This waiver only applies to actions of an agency or its officers. The statute, in turn, defines "agency" in a way that excludes the "courts of the United States." Id. § 701(b)(1)(B). The Administrative Office of the United States Courts is a part of the judicial branch, so the Director's actions are not subject to judicial...

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  • 851 F.Supp.2d 1267 (D.Or. 2011), 2:11-cv-00741-MO, Burns Ranches, Inc. v. United States Dept. of the Interior
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 9th Circuit District of Oregon
    • November 29, 2011
    ...1203, 1219 (E.D.Wash.2010); Western Shoshone Nat. Council v. United States, 408 F.Supp.2d 1040, 1048 (D.Nev.2005); Muirhead v. Mecham, 427 F.3d 14, 18 n. 1 (1st Cir.2005); Balistrieri v. United States, 303 F.2d 617, 619 (7th Cir.1962); Anderson v. United States, 229 F.2d 675, 677 (5th Cir.1......
  • 76 F.Supp.3d 374 (D.Mass. 2015), C. A. 13-11028-NMG, OA VW LLC v. Massachusetts Department of Transportation
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 1st Circuit District of Massachusetts
    • January 6, 2015
    ...whether the [officer's] action, even if legally erroneous, was beyond the scope of his statutory authority." Muirhead v. Mecham, 427 F.3d 14, 20 (1st Cir. 2005). Contrary to defendants' assertion, the existence of the ultra vires exception has been recognized in cases following Pennhur......
  • 99 F.Supp.3d 232 (D. Puerto Rico 2015), Civ. 14-1829 (FAB), Torres-Estrada v. Garcia-Garcia
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 1st Circuit District of Puerto Rico
    • April 8, 2015
    ...related arguments in turn. " [A]s the sovereign, the United States is immune from suit without its consent." Muirhead v. Mecham, 427 F.3d 14, 17 (1st Cir. 2005). " That consent usually takes the form of an express waiver of its sovereign immunity." Id. A waiver of sovere......
  • 949 F.Supp.2d 616 (W.D.Pa. 2013), C. A. 2:10-cv-01768, Wigton v. Berry
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 3th Circuit
    • June 7, 2013
    ...effects a waiver of sovereign immunity. See Clinton Cnty. Comm'rs v. EPA, 116 F.3d 1018, 1021 (3d Cir. 1997) (§ 1331); Muirhead v. Mecham, 427 F.3d 14, 21 n.1 (1st Cir. 2005) (§ However, for actions against administrative agencies, 5 U.S.C. § 702 does provide that waiver. Under the APA's wa......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
72 cases
  • 851 F.Supp.2d 1267 (D.Or. 2011), 2:11-cv-00741-MO, Burns Ranches, Inc. v. United States Dept. of the Interior
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 9th Circuit District of Oregon
    • November 29, 2011
    ...1203, 1219 (E.D.Wash.2010); Western Shoshone Nat. Council v. United States, 408 F.Supp.2d 1040, 1048 (D.Nev.2005); Muirhead v. Mecham, 427 F.3d 14, 18 n. 1 (1st Cir.2005); Balistrieri v. United States, 303 F.2d 617, 619 (7th Cir.1962); Anderson v. United States, 229 F.2d 675, 677 (5th Cir.1......
  • 76 F.Supp.3d 374 (D.Mass. 2015), C. A. 13-11028-NMG, OA VW LLC v. Massachusetts Department of Transportation
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 1st Circuit District of Massachusetts
    • January 6, 2015
    ...whether the [officer's] action, even if legally erroneous, was beyond the scope of his statutory authority." Muirhead v. Mecham, 427 F.3d 14, 20 (1st Cir. 2005). Contrary to defendants' assertion, the existence of the ultra vires exception has been recognized in cases following Pennhur......
  • 99 F.Supp.3d 232 (D. Puerto Rico 2015), Civ. 14-1829 (FAB), Torres-Estrada v. Garcia-Garcia
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 1st Circuit District of Puerto Rico
    • April 8, 2015
    ...related arguments in turn. " [A]s the sovereign, the United States is immune from suit without its consent." Muirhead v. Mecham, 427 F.3d 14, 17 (1st Cir. 2005). " That consent usually takes the form of an express waiver of its sovereign immunity." Id. A waiver of sovere......
  • 949 F.Supp.2d 616 (W.D.Pa. 2013), C. A. 2:10-cv-01768, Wigton v. Berry
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 3th Circuit
    • June 7, 2013
    ...effects a waiver of sovereign immunity. See Clinton Cnty. Comm'rs v. EPA, 116 F.3d 1018, 1021 (3d Cir. 1997) (§ 1331); Muirhead v. Mecham, 427 F.3d 14, 21 n.1 (1st Cir. 2005) (§ However, for actions against administrative agencies, 5 U.S.C. § 702 does provide that waiver. Under the APA's wa......
  • Request a trial to view additional results