465 U.S. 848 (1984), 82-618, Kosak v. U.s.

Docket Nº:No. 82-618.
Citation:465 U.S. 848, 104 S.Ct. 1519, 79 L.Ed.2d 860
Party Name:Joseph A. KOSAK, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES.
Case Date:March 21, 1984
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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465 U.S. 848 (1984)

104 S.Ct. 1519, 79 L.Ed.2d 860

Joseph A. KOSAK, Petitioner,

v.

UNITED STATES.

No. 82-618.

United States Supreme Court.

March 21, 1984

Argued Nov. 7, 1983.

Action was brought against the United States to recover for damage to property occurring when the property was in the custody of the Customs Service. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, John B. Hannum, J., dismissed the complaint, and appeal was taken. The Court of Appeals, Aldisert, Circuit Judge, 679 F.2d 306, affirmed, and certiorari was granted. The Supreme Court, Justice Marshall, held that: (1) for purposes of section of Federal Tort Claims Act which exempts from the coverage of the Act any claims "arising in respect of" the detention of any goods or merchandise by any officer of customs, the language "arising in respect of" means any claim "arising out of" the detention of goods, including a claim resulting from negligent handling or storage of the detained property, and is not limited to claims for damage caused by the detention itself; and (2) that exemption precluded recovery against the United States for injury to private property sustained during a temporary detention of the property by the Customs Service.

Affirmed.

Justice Stevens dissented and filed opinion.

[104 S.Ct. 1520] Syllabus[*]

SYLLABUS

Petitioner's art collection was seized by customs officials when he was suspected of smuggling the collection into the country. Subsequently, petitioner was acquitted of the smuggling charge, and the objects of art were returned to him upon his petition for relief from civil forfeiture. He then filed an administrative complaint seeking compensation for alleged damage to the property occurring while it was in the Customs Service's custody. When the Service denied relief, petitioner filed suit in Federal District Court under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), seeking damages for the alleged injury to his property. The District Court granted the Government's motion for dismissal of the complaint or summary judgment on the ground that the claim was barred by 28 U.S.C. § 2680(c), which exempts from the coverage of the FTCA "[a]ny claims arising in respect of ... the detention of any goods or merchandise by any officer of customs." The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Section 2680(c) precludes recovery against the United States for the alleged injury to petitioner's property. Pp. 1522-1527.

(a) The fairest interpretation of § 2680(c)'s language "arising in respect of" is that such language means any claim "arising out of" the detention of goods, including a claim resulting from negligent handling or storage of the detained property, and is not limited to claims for damage caused by the detention itself. That § 2680(b) expressly bars actions "arising out of the loss, miscarriage, or negligent transmission" of mail does not undercut this reading of § 2680(c)'s language, but merely suggests that Congress intended [104 S.Ct. 1521] § 2680(b) to be less encompassing than § 2680(c). Pp. 1522-1524.

(b) The legislative history of § 2680(c) supports the above interpretation. Moreover, the interpretation accords with Congress' general purposes, in creating exceptions to the FTCA, of ensuring that "certain governmental activities" not be disrupted by the threat of damage suits, of avoiding exposure of the United States to liability for excessive or fraudulent claims, and of not extending coverage of the Act to suits for which adequate remedies were already available. Pp. 1524-1527.

679 F.2d 306, affirmed.

COUNSEL

Jeffrey L. Naftulin argued the cause and filed a brief for petitioner.

Kathryn A. Oberly argued the cause for the United States. With her on the brief were Solicitor General Lee, Assistant Attorney General McGrath, Deputy Solicitor General Geller, and Marc Richman.

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Jeffrey L. Naftulin, Doylestown, Pa., for petitioner.

Kathryn A. Oberly, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

OPINION

Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented in this case is whether 28 U.S.C. § 2680(c), which exempts from the coverage of the Federal Tort Claims Act "[a]ny claim arising in respect of ... the detention of any goods or merchandise by any officer of customs," precludes recovery against the United States for injury to private property sustained during a temporary detention of the property by the Customs Service.

I

While a serviceman stationed in Guam, petitioner assembled a large collection of oriental art. When he was transferred from Guam to Philadelphia, petitioner brought his art collection with him. In his customs declaration,1 petitioner stated that he intended to keep the contents of the collection for himself. Subsequently, acting upon information that, contrary to his representations, petitioner planned to resell portions of his collection, agents of the United States Customs Service obtained a valid warrant to search petitioner's house. In executing that warrant, the agents seized various antiques and other objects of art.

Petitioner was charged with smuggling his art collection into the country, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 545. After a jury trial, he was acquitted. The Customs Service then notified petitioner that the seized objects were subject to civil forfeiture under 19 U.S.C. § 1592 (1976), which at the time permitted confiscation of goods brought into the United States "by

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means of any false statement." Relying on 19 U.S.C. § 1618, petitioner filed a petition for relief from the forfeiture. 2 The Customs Service granted the petition and returned the goods.

Alleging that some of the objects returned to him had been injured while in the custody of the Customs Service, petitioner filed an administrative complaint with the Service requesting compensation for the damage. The Customs Service denied relief. Relying on the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b), 2671-2680, petitioner then filed suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, seeking approximately $12,000 in damages for the alleged injury to his property. 3 The Government moved for a dismissal [104 S.Ct. 1522] of the complaint or for summary judgment on the ground that petitioner's claim was barred by § 2680(c). The District Court granted the Government's motion. 4

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The Court of Appeals, with one judge dissenting, affirmed. 679 F.2d 306 (CA3 1982). The Court of Appeals reasoned that the United States may be held liable for torts committed by its employees only on the basis of a statutory provision evincing a "clear relinquishment of sovereign immunity." Id., at 309 (quoting Dalehite v. United States, 346 U.S. 15, 31, 73 S.Ct. 956, 965, 97 L.Ed. 1427 (1953)). In the court's view, the Federal Tort Claims Act, as qualified by § 2680(c), fails to provide the necessary relinquishment of Governmental immunity from suits alleging that customs officials damaged or lost detained property. On the contrary, the court observed, the "clear language" of § 2680(c) shields the United States from "all claims arising out of detention of goods by customs officers and does not purport to distinguish among types of harm." Id., at 308. On that basis, the Court of Appeals held that petitioner had failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted.

We granted certiorari to resolve a conflict in the circuits regarding the liability of the United States for injuries caused by the negligence of customs officials in handling property in their possession. 5 --- U.S. ----, 103 S.Ct. 722, 74 L.Ed.2d 948 (1983). We now affirm.

II

A

The Federal Tort Claims Act, enacted in 1946, provides generally that the United States shall be liable, to the same extent as a private party, "for injury or loss of property, or

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personal injury or death 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. § 1346(b); see also 28 U.S.C. § 2674. The Act's broad waiver of sovereign immunity is, however, subject to 13 enumerated exceptions. 28 U.S.C. § 2680(a)-(n). One of those exceptions, § 2680(c), exempts from the coverage of the statute "[a]ny claim arising in respect of ... the detention of any goods or merchandise by any officer of customs...."6 Petitioner asks us to construe the foregoing language to cover only claims "for damage caused by the detention itself and not for the negligent ... destruction of property while it is in the [104 S.Ct. 1523] possession of the customs service." By "damage caused by the detention itself," petitioner appears to mean harms attributable to an illegal detention, such as a decline in the economic value of detained goods (either because of depreciation or because of a drop in the price the goods will fetch), injury resulting from deprivation of the ability to make use of the goods during the period of detention, or consequential damages resulting from lack of access to the goods. 7 The Government asks us to read the

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exception to cover all injuries to property sustained during its detention by customs officials. 8

The starting point of our analysis of these competing interpretations must, of course, be the language of § 2680(c). "[W]e assume 'that the legislative purpose is expressed by the ordinary meaning of the words used.' " American Tobacco Co. v. Patterson, 456 U.S. 63, 68, 102 S.Ct. 1534, 1537, 71 L.Ed.2d 748 (1982) (quoting Richards v. United States, 369 U.S. 1, 9, 82 S.Ct. 585, 591, 7 L.Ed.2d 492 (1962)). 9 At first blush,

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the statutory language certainly appears expansive enough to support the Government's construction; the encompassing phrase, "arising in respect of," seems to sweep within the exception all injuries associated in any way with the "detention" of goods. It must be admitted that this initial reading is not...

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