546 U.S. 481 (2006), 04-848, Dolan v. United States Postal Service

Docket Nº:No. 04-848.
Citation:546 U.S. 481, 126 S.Ct. 1252, 163 L.Ed.2d 1079
Party Name:Barbara DOLAN, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE et al.
Case Date:February 22, 2006
Court:United States Supreme Court

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546 U.S. 481 (2006)

126 S.Ct. 1252, 163 L.Ed.2d 1079

Barbara DOLAN, Petitioner,



No. 04-848.

United States Supreme Court

February 22, 2006

Argued November 7, 2005.


[126 S.Ct. 1253] SYLLABUS[*]

Under the Postal Reorganization Act, the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) applies to "tort claims arising out of [Postal Service] activities." 39 U.S.C. §409(c). The FTCA, in turn, waives sovereign immunity in certain cases involving negligence committed by federal employees in the course of their employment, 28 U.S.C. §1346(b)(1), making the United States liable "in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances," §2674. However, the sovereign immunity bar remains as to, inter alia, "[a]ny claim arising out of the loss, miscarriage, or negligent transmission of letters or postal matter." §2680(b). Consequently, the United States may be liable if postal workers commit torts under local law, but not for claims defined by the exception. Petitioner Dolan filed an [126 S.Ct. 1254] FTCA suit against the Postal Service for injuries she suffered when she tripped and fell over mail left on her porch by postal employees. The District Court dismissed the suit, and the Third Circuit affirmed, both concluding that, although the FTCA generally waives sovereign immunity as to federal employees' torts, Dolan's claims were barred by §2680(b)'s exception.


Because the postal exception is inapplicable in this case, Dolan's claim may go forward. This Court assumes that under the applicable state law a person injured by tripping over a package or bundle negligently left by a private party would have a cause of action for damages. The question is whether §2860(b)'s exception preserves sovereign immunity in such a case. Considered in isolation, "negligent transmission" could embrace a wide range of acts. However, interpretation of a word or phrase depends upon reading the whole statutory text, considering the statute's purpose and context. Here, both context and precedent require reading the phrase so that it does not go beyond negligence causing mail to be lost or to arrive late, in damaged condition, or at the wrong address. Starting with context, "negligent transmission" follows the terms "loss" and "miscarriage," which limit the reach of transmission. Mail is "lost" if it is destroyed or misplaced and "miscarried" if it goes to the wrong address. Since both terms refer to failings in the postal obligation to deliver mail in a timely manner to the right address, it would be odd if "negligent transmission" swept far more broadly to include injuries caused by postal employees but involving

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neither failure to transmit mail nor damage to its contents. This interpretation is supported by Kosak v. United States, 465 U.S. 848, 104 S.Ct. 1519, 79 L.Ed.2d 860, where this Court noted that one of the FTCA's purposes was to waive the Government's immunity from liability for injuries resulting from auto accidents involving postal trucks delivering--and thus "transmitting"--the mail. Nothing in the statutory text supports a distinction between negligent driving, which the Government claims relates only circumstantially to the mail, and Dolan's accident, which was caused by the mail itself. In both cases the postal employee acts negligently while transmitting mail. In addition, focusing on whether the mail itself caused the injury would yield anomalies, perhaps making liability turn on, e.g., whether a mail sack was empty or full. It is more likely that Congress intended to retain immunity only for injuries arising because mail either fails to arrive or arrives late, in damaged condition, or at the wrong address, since such harms are primarily identified with the Postal Service's function of transporting mail. The Government claims that, given the Postal Service's vast operations, Congress must have intended to insulate delivery-related torts from liability, but §2680(b)'s specificity indicates otherwise. Had Congress intended to preserve immunity for all delivery-related torts, it could have used sweeping language similar to that used in other FTCA exceptions, e.g., §2860(i). Furthermore, losses of the type for which immunity is retained under §2680(b) are at least to some degree avoidable or compensable through postal registration and insurance. The Government raises the specter of frivolous slip-and-fall claims inundating the Postal Service, but that is a risk shared by any business making home deliveries. Finally, the general rule that a sovereign immunity waiver "will be strictly construed . . . in favor of the sovereign," Lane v. Pefia, 518 U.S. 187, 192, 116 S.Ct. 2092, 135 L.Ed.2d 486, is "unhelpful" in the FTCA context, where "unduly generous interpretations of the exceptions run the risk of defeating" the central purpose of the statute, Kosak, supra, at 853, n. 9, 104 S.Ct. 1519, [126 S.Ct. 1255] which "waives the Government's immunity from suit in sweeping language," United States v. Yellow Cab Co., 340 U.S. 543, 547, 71 S.Ct. 399, 95 L.Ed. 523. Pp. 1256-1260.

377 F.3d 285, reversed and remanded.

KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and Stevens, Scalia, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion. ALITO, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.


Michael T. Kirkpatrick, Public Citizen Litigation Group, 1600, Washington, DC, James R. Radmore, Counsel of Record, Law Office of James R. Radmore, PC, Philadelphia, PA, for Petitioner.

Mary Anne Gibbons, General Counsel, Lori J. Dym, Stephan Z. Boardman, Martina M. Stewart, United States Postal Service, Washington, D.C., Paul D. Clement, Solicitor, General Counsel of Record, Edwin S. Kneedler, Deputy Solicitor General, Patricia A. Millett, Assistant to the Solicitor General, Robert S. Greenspan, Robert D. Kamenshine, Attorneys Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., for respondents.


Kennedy, Justice.

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Each day, according to the Government's submissions here, the United States Postal Service delivers some 660 million pieces of mail to as many as 142 million delivery points. This case involves one such delivery point--petitioner Barbara Dolan's porch--where mail left by postal employees allegedly caused her to trip and fall. Claiming injuries as a result, Dolan filed a claim for administrative relief from the Postal Service. When her claim was denied, she and her husband (whose claim for loss of consortium the Dolans later conceded was barred for failure to exhaust administrative remedies) filed suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, asserting that the Postal Service's negligent placement of mail at their home subjected the Government to liability under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), 28 U.S.C. §§1346(b)(1), 2674. The District Court dismissed Dolan's suit, and the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed, 377 F.3d 285 (2004). Both courts concluded that, although the FTCA generally waives sovereign immunity as to federal employees' torts, Dolan's claims were barred by an exception to that waiver, 28 U.S.C. §2680(b). We disagree and hold that Dolan's suit may proceed.


Under the Postal Reorganization Act, 39 U.S.C. §101 et seq., the Postal Service is "an independent establishment of the executive branch of the Government of the United

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States," §201. Holding a monopoly over carriage of letters, the Postal Service has "significant governmental powers," including the power of eminent domain, the authority to make searches and seizures in the enforcement of laws protecting the mails, the authority to promulgate postal regulations, and, subject to the Secretary of State's supervision, the power to enter international postal agreements. See Postal Service v. Flamingo Industries (USA) Ltd., 540 U.S. 736, 741, 124 S.Ct. 1321, 158 L.Ed.2d 19 (2004) [126 S.Ct. 1256] (discussing 39 U.S.C. §§101, 401, 407, 601-606). Consistent with this status, the Postal Service enjoys federal sovereign immunity absent a waiver. See ibid.; cf. FDIC v. Meyer, 510 U.S. 471, 475, 114 S.Ct. 996, 127 L.Ed.2d 308 (1994) ("Absent a waiver, sovereign immunity shields the Federal Government and its agencies from suit").

Although the Postal Reorganization Act generally "waives the immunity of the Postal Service from suit by giving it the power 'to sue and be sued in its official name,' " Flamingo Industries, supra, at 741, 124 S.Ct. 1321 (quoting 39 U.S.C. §401(1)), the statute also provides that the FTCA "shall apply to tort claims arising out of activities of the Postal Service," §409(c).

The FTCA, in turn, waives sovereign immunity in two different sections of the United States Code. The first confers federal-court jurisdiction in a defined category of cases involving negligence committed by federal employees in the course of their employment. This jurisdictional grant covers:

"claims against the United States, for money damages, accruing on and after January 1, 1945, for injury or loss of property, or 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, under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred." 28 U.S.C. §1346(b)(1).

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As to claims falling within this jurisdictional grant, the FTCA, in a second provision, makes the United States liable "in the same manner and to the same extent as a...

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