441 F.3d 220 (4th Cir. 2006), 04-7269, Andrews v. United States

Docket Nº:04-7269.
Citation:441 F.3d 220
Party Name:Anthony ANDREWS, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. UNITED STATES of America, Defendant-Appellant.
Case Date:January 25, 2006
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

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441 F.3d 220 (4th Cir. 2006)

Anthony ANDREWS, Plaintiff-Appellee,


UNITED STATES of America, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 04-7269.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit.

Jan. 25, 2006

        Argued Sept. 22, 2005.

        As Amended Feb. 28, 2006.

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        Alistair Elizabeth Newbern, Supervising Attorney, Georgetown University Law Center, Appellate Litigation Program, Washington, D.C., for Appellant.

        Robert P. McIntosh, Assistant United States Attorney, Office of the United States Attorney, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

        Steven H. Goldblatt, Director, Heather Kissel, Student Counsel, Randi Wallach, Student, Georgetown University Law Center, Appellate Litigation Program, Washington, D.C., for Appellant.

        Paul J. McNulty, United States Attorney, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellee.

        Before WILLIAMS, KING, and SHEDD, Circuit Judges.

        Reversed and remanded with instructions by published opinion. Judge WILLIAMS wrote the majority opinion, in which Judge SHEDD concurred. Judge KING wrote a dissenting opinion.


        WILLIAMS, Circuit Judge.

        Anthony Andrews, an inmate in the Federal Correctional Institute--Petersburg, VA (FCI Petersburg), appeals the district court's dismissal of his suit brought under the Federal Torts Claim Act (FTCA), 28 U.S.C.A. §§ 1346 and 2671-2680 (West Supp.2005), against the United States alleging that the negligence of a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) officer caused the loss of his property. The district court concluded that the United States had not waived its sovereign immunity because the BOP officer was covered by the exception to the FTCA set forth in 28 U.S.C.A. § 2680(c), and it therefore dismissed Andrews's complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Because we conclude that the BOP officer here is not covered by § 2680(c), we reverse.


        On August 27, 2002, Andrews was temporarily transferred from FCI Petersburg to the Eastern District of North Carolina for a hearing. Andrews had accumulated nearly two duffle bags of legal materials related to his case. Recognizing that he could not take all of this material with him to North Carolina, Andrews took only a stack of legal materials and left in his cell locker all his other remaining legal materials and personal property. While he was in North Carolina, FCI Petersburg needed additional cell space, so a BOP officer packed Andrews's belongings and prepared an Inmate Personal Property Record. When completing the form, the BOP officer erroneously indicated that Andrews had been permanently transferred from FCI Petersburg. Because of this error, Andrews's property was shipped from FCI Petersburg and lost.

        On January 7, 2003, Andrews returned to FCI Petersburg and found his possessions missing. On January 17, 2003, he filed an administrative claim with the BOP seeking damages for the missing property. The BOP denied his claim, and he filed suit against the United States under the FTCA. On April 13, 2004, the United States moved to dismiss Andrews's suit on the ground of sovereign immunity.

        On July 27, 2004, the district court granted the government's motion to dismiss. The court concluded that BOP officers were "law enforcement officer[s]" for purposes of § 2680(c)'s exception to the waiver of sovereign immunity. As a result, the court held that the United States

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had not waived sovereign immunity for suits against BOP officers for the detention of property, and it dismissed Andrews's suit for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Andrews noted a timely appeal.


        We review de novo the district court's interpretation of § 2680(c) and its resulting conclusion that it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction. See Treacy v. Newdunn Assoc., LLP, 344 F.3d 407, 410 (4th Cir.2003). The first step in determining the meaning of a statute is to examine the statute's plain language. United Seniors Ass'n, Inc. v. Social Sec. Admin., 423 F.3d 397, 402 (4th Cir.2005). In doing so, we look at "the language itself, the specific context in which that language is used, and the broader context of the statute as a whole." Robinson v. Shell Oil Co., 519 U.S. 337, 341, 117 S.Ct. 843, 136 L.Ed.2d 808 (1997).

        We begin our analysis with the text of § 2680(c) and its context in the FTCA's statutory scheme. The FTCA broadly waives the sovereign immunity of the United States for monetary claims "for injury or loss of property ... caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government while acting within the scope of his office or employment." 28 U.S.C.A. § 1346(b)(1). Congress limited this broad waiver, however, by retaining sovereign immunity in thirteen distinct areas. One such area is described in § 2680(c), which states:

The provisions of ... [the FTCA] shall not apply to ...

(c) Any claim arising in respect of the assessment or collection of any tax or customs duty, or the detention of any goods, merchandise, or other property by any officer of customs or excise or any other law enforcement officer....

        Neither Andrews nor the Government disputes that Andrews's negligence claim "aris[es] in respect of ... the detention ... of property." Rather, the single point of disagreement is whether the BOP officer here is a "law enforcement officer" within the meaning of the subsection. If he is not such a "law enforcement officer," then sovereign immunity does not bar Andrews's complaint. If he is, the United States has retained sovereign immunity from Andrews's suit, and the district court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to hear it.


        Although the Supreme Court and this circuit previously have addressed § 2680(c), neither court has decided the meaning of the phrase "any other law enforcement officer." 1 See Kosak v. United States, 465 U.S. 848, 852, 104 S.Ct. 1519, 79 L.Ed.2d 860 (1984) (holding that § 2680(c)'s exception for claims "arising in respect of ... the detention of goods" includes a claim for damage to the goods during the detention); Perkins v. United States, 55 F.3d 910, 915 (4th Cir.1995) (holding that § 2680(c)'s reference to the assessment or collection of any tax bars only those claims that are "related, however, remotely, to a bona fide effort to assess or collect a particular tax debt"). In fact, in Kosak the Supreme Court reserved the question of precisely what types of law enforcement officers are covered by § 2680(c). See 465 U.S. at 852 n. 6, 104 S.Ct. 1519 ("We have no occasion in this case to decide what kinds of 'law-enforcement officer[s],' other than customs officials,

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are covered by the exception." (quoting 28 U.S.C.A. § 2680(c))).

        Although the Court in Kosak did not determine the meaning of the phrase "any other law enforcement officer," the Court did establish an important interpretative method by which we should construe the phrase. Although it is a familiar canon of statutory construction that ambiguities in waivers of sovereign immunity are to be "strictly construed ... in favor of the sovereign," see Lane v. Pena, 518 U.S. 187, 192, 116 S.Ct. 2092, 135 L.Ed.2d 486 (1996), in Kosak, the Court rejected the Government's argument that the corollary of this canon was also true--that exceptions to waivers of sovereign immunity should be broadly construed in favor of the sovereign. 465 U.S. at 853 n. 9, 104 S.Ct. 1519. Instead, the Court instructed that the correct approach in construing the meaning of § 2680(c) is "to identify those circumstances which are within the words and reason of the exception--no less and no more." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). Otherwise, "unduly generous interpretations of the exceptions run the risk of defeating the central purpose of the [FTCA]." Id. Under Kosak, then, our task is to interpret the phrase "any other law enforcement officer" without placing a thumb on the scale for the benefit of the sovereign. 2 Instead, we must determine precisely who is a "law enforcement officer" under § 2680(c).



         Andrews claims that his property was lost due to the negligence of a BOP officer, who in the abstract is assuredly a "law enforcement officer." But before we can conclude that the BOP officer here is a "law enforcement officer" within the meaning of § 2680(c), we must determine whether the context of the statute limits the "any other law enforcement officer" phrase. Examining the phrase in context is necessary because "[w]e do not ... construe statutory phrases in isolation; we read statutes as a whole." United States v. Morton, 467 U.S. 822, 828, 104 S.Ct. 2769, 81 L.Ed.2d 680 (1984). In fulfilling this requirement, we find particularly applicable the ejusdem generis and noscitur a sociis canons of statutory construction. These related canons remove the phrase from the abstract and give it the meaning the context demands. Cf. Wash. State Dep't of Soc. and Health Servs. v. Keffeler, 537 U.S. 371...

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