515 U.S. 417 (1995), 94-167, Gutierrez De Martinez v. Lamagno

Docket Nº:Case No. 94-167
Citation:515 U.S. 417, 115 S.Ct. 2227, 132 L.Ed.2d 375, 63 U.S.L.W. 4584
Party Name:GUTIERREZ De MARTINEZ et al. v. LAMAGNO et al.
Case Date:June 14, 1995
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 417

515 U.S. 417 (1995)

115 S.Ct. 2227, 132 L.Ed.2d 375, 63 U.S.L.W. 4584

GUTIERREZ De MARTINEZ et al.

v.

LAMAGNO et al.

Case No. 94-167

United States Supreme Court

June 14, 1995

Argued March 22, 1995

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Invoking the federal court's jurisdiction based on diversity of citizenship, petitioners alleged in their complaint that they had suffered physical injuries and property damage as a result of an accident in Colombia caused by the negligence of respondent Lamagno, a federal employee. The United States Attorney, acting pursuant to the statute commonly known as the Westfall Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2679(d)(1), certified on behalf of the Attorney General that Lamagno was acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the episode. Ordinarily, upon such certification, the employee is dismissed from the action, the United States is substituted as defendant, and the case proceeds under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). But in this case, substitution would cause the action's demise: petitioners' claims arose abroad, and thus fell within an exception to the FTCA's waiver of the United States' sovereign immunity. And the United States' immunity would afford petitioners no legal ground to bring Lamagno back into the action. See United States v. Smith, 499 U.S. 160. Endeavoring to redeem their lawsuit, petitioners sought court review of the Attorney General's scope-of-employment certification, for if Lamagno was acting outside the scope of his employment, the action could proceed against him. However, the District Court held the certification unreviewable, substituted the United States for Lamagno, and dismissed the suit. The Fourth Circuit affirmed.

Held:

The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded.

23 F.3d 402, reversed and remanded.

Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, and III, concluding that the Attorney General's scope-of-employment certification is reviewable in court. Pp. 423-434.

(a) As shown by the division in the lower courts and in this case, the Westfall Act is open to divergent interpretation on the question at issue. Two considerations weigh heavily in the Court's analysis. First, the Attorney General herself urges review, mindful that in cases of the kind petitioners present, the incentive of her delegate to certify is marked. Second, when a Government official's determination of a fact or circumstance—for example, "scope of employment"—is dispositive of a court controversy, federal judges traditionally proceed from the strong presumption

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that Congress intends judicial review. Review will not be cut off absent persuasive reason to believe that Congress so intended. No such reason is discernible here. Pp. 423-425.

(b) Congress, when it composed the Westfall Act, legislated against a backdrop of judicial review: courts routinely reviewed the local United States Attorney's scope-of-employment certification under the Act's statutory predecessor. The plain purpose of the Westfall Act was to override Westfall v. Erwin, 484 U.S. 292, which had added a "discretionary function" requirement, discrete from the scope-of-employment test, as a criterion for a federal officer's personal immunity. Although Congress thus wanted the employee's personal immunity to turn solely on the critical scope-of-employment inquiry, nothing tied to the Act's purpose shows an intent to commit that inquiry to the unreviewable judgment of the Attorney General or her delegate. Pp. 425-426.

(c) Construction of the Westfall Act as Lamagno urges—to deny to federal courts authority to review the Attorney General's scope-of-employment certification—would oblige this Court to attribute to Congress two highly anomalous commands. First, the Court would have to accept that, whenever the case falls within an exception to the FTCA, Congress has authorized the Attorney General to sit as an unreviewable judge in her own cause—able to block petitioners' way to a tort action in court, at no cost to the federal treasury, while avoiding litigation in which the United States has no incentive to engage, and incidentally enhancing the morale—or at least sparing the purse—of federal employees. This conspicuously self-serving interpretation runs counter to the fundamental principle that no one should be a judge in his own cause, and has been disavowed by the United States. Pp. 426-429.

(d) Second, and at least equally perplexing, Lamagno's proposed reading would cast Article III judges in the role of petty functionaries, persons required to rubber-stamp the decision of a scarcely disinterested executive officer, but stripped of capacity to evaluate independently whether that decision is correct. This strange course becomes all the more surreal when one adds to the scene the absence of any obligation on the part of the Attorney General's delegate to conduct proceedings, to give the plaintiff an opportunity to speak to the scope-of-employment question, to give notice that she is considering the question, or to give any explanation for her action. This Court resists ascribing to Congress an intention to place courts in the untenable position of having automatically to enter judgments pursuant to decisions they have no authority to evaluate. Pp. 429-430.

(e) The Westfall Act's language is far from clear. Section 2679(d)(2) provides for removal of the case from state to federal court and for substitution of the United States as defendant upon the Attorney General's

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certification. Section 2679(d)(2) states explicitly that "certification of the Attorney General shall conclusively establish scope of office or employment for purposes of removal. " (Emphasis added.) Notably, § 2679(d)(2) contains no such statement with regard to substitution. The § 2679(d)(2) prescription thus tends in favor of judicial review. Counseling against review, however, is the commanding force of the word "shall": "Upon certification by the Attorney General . . ., any civil action or proceeding . . . shall be deemed an action against the United States . . ., and the United States shall be substituted as the party defendant." § 2679(d)(1) (emphasis added). As the statutory language is reasonably susceptible to divergent interpretations, the Court adopts the reading that accords with the presumption favoring judicial review and the tradition of court review of scope certifications, while avoiding the anomalies that attend foreclosure of review. Pp. 430-434.

Ginsburg, J., delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, and III, in which Stevens, O'Connor, Kennedy, and Breyer, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Part IV, in which Stevens, Kennedy, and Breyer, JJ., joined. O'Connor, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 437. Souter, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Scalia and Thomas, JJ., joined, post, p. 438.

Isidoro Rodriguez argued the cause and filed a brief for petitioners. Malcolm L. Stewart argued the cause for the federal respondents in support of petitioners pursuant to this Court's Rule 12.4. On the briefs were Solicitor General Days, Assistant Attorney General Hunger, Deputy Solicitor General Bender, Jeffrey P. Minear, Barbara L. Herwig, and Peter R. Maier.

Andrew J. Maloney III argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent Lamagno.

Michael K. Kellogg, by invitation of the Court, 513 U.S. 1010, argued the cause and filed a brief as amicus curiae urging affirmance.

Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Part IV.

When a federal employee is sued for a wrongful or negligent act, the Federal Employees Liability Reform and Tort

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Compensation Act of 1988 (commonly known as the Westfall Act) empowers the Attorney General to certify that the employee "was acting within the scope of his office or employment at the time of the incident out of which the claim arose . . . ." 28 U.S.C. § 2679(d)(1). Upon certification, the employee is dismissed from the action and the United States is substituted as defendant. The case then falls under the governance of the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), ch. 753, 60 Stat. 812, 842. Generally, such cases unfold much as cases do against other employers who concede respondeat superior liability. If, however, an exception to the FTCA shields the United States from suit, the plaintiff may be left without a tort action against any party.

This case is illustrative. The Attorney General certified that an allegedly negligent employee "was acting within the scope of his . . . employment" at the time of the episode in suit. Once brought into the case as a defendant, however, the United States asserted immunity, because the incident giving rise to the claim occurred abroad and the FTCA excepts "[a]ny claim arising in a foreign country." 28 U.S.C. § 2680(k). Endeavoring to redeem their lawsuit, plaintiffs (petitioners here) sought court review of the Attorney General's scope-of-employment certification, for if the employee was acting outside the scope of his employment, the plaintiffs' tort action could proceed against him. The lower courts held the certification unreviewable. We reverse that determination and hold that the scope-of-employment certification is reviewable in court.

I

Shortly before midnight on January 18, 1991, in Barranquilla, Colombia, a car driven by respondent Dirk A. Lamagno, a special agent of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), collided with petitioners' car. Petitioners, who are citizens of Colombia, allege that Lamagno

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was intoxicated and that his passenger, an...

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