Butler v. United States

Decision Date19 December 2012
Docket NumberNo. 11–2408.,11–2408.
Citation702 F.3d 749
PartiesKay F. BUTLER, Individually and as Executor of the Estate of Truman DeWayne Butler, Plaintiff–Appellant, v. UNITED STATES of America, Defendant–Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit


ARGUED:Lewis M. Everett, Everett & Everett, Durham, North Carolina, for Appellant. Jason R. Cheek, United States Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Jon P. McClanahan, UNC School of Law, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for Appellant. Stuart F. Delery, Acting Assistant Attorney General, Phyllis J. Pyles, Director, Torts Branch, Bridget Bailey Lipscomb, Senior Trial Counsel, Torts Branch, United States Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.; Ripley Eagles Rand, United States Attorney, Greensboro, North Carolina, for Appellee.

Before NIEMEYER, SHEDD, and AGEE, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed by published opinion. Judge AGEE wrote the opinion, in which Judge NIEMEYER and Judge SHEDD concurred.


AGEE, Circuit Judge:

Kay F. Butler (Mrs. Butler), individually and as executor of the estate of her husband, Truman D. Butler (Mr. Butler), appeals the district court's dismissal of her action for wrongful death and loss of consortium under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”), 28 U.S.C. § 1346. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the judgment of the district court.


On January 29, 2004, Mr. Butler, a veteran of the armed forces, was examined at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina (“Durham VA”) for evaluation of a thoracic aortic aneurysm. Dr. Jonathan Gray (“Dr. Gray”), who was employed as a vascular surgeon at the Durham VA, determined that surgery was required. The surgery was performed at Duke University hospital by Dr. Gray and Dr. Robert Messier.

In the immediate post-operative period, Mr. Butler was discovered to be paralyzed from the chest down. He began to experience acute renal failure, pulmonary edema, and congestive heart failure. His left leg later had to be amputated and he was eventually transferred to the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia (“Richmond VA”). Mr. Butler later developed sepsis and died on March 15, 2005.

In April 2005, Mrs. Butler filed a claim for dependency and indemnity compensation benefits with the Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”), pursuant to 38 U.S.C. § 1151 (§ 1151). This statute provides for disability payments from the VA if claimants can show that disability or death was

caused by hospital care, medical or surgical treatment, or examination furnished the veteran ... in a [VA] facility ... and the proximate cause of the disability or death was ... carelessness, negligence, lack of proper skill, error in judgment, or similar instance of fault on the part of the [VA] in furnishing the hospital care, medical or surgical treatment, or examination; or ... an event not reasonably foreseeable.

38 U.S.C. § 1151(a)(1).

The VA issued a Rating Decision on April 9, 2008 (“Rating Decision”). The Rating Decision reviewed the claim submitted by Mrs. Butler and noted that the responses from the Durham VA and the Richmond VA gave “very little detail” and did not address any of the “specific points of contention.” (J.A. 31.) The Rating Decision also referred to three expert reports which “pointed out in detail how the standards of care were not followed and why the way the surgery was performed was questionable.” (J.A. 31.) Based on the evidence presented, the VA resolved all reasonable doubts in Mrs. Butler's favor and concluded that she was entitled to an award of benefits under § 1151. See38 U.S.C. § 5107(b) (“When there is an approximate balance of positive and negative evidence regarding any issue material to the determination of a matter, the Secretary shall give the benefit of the doubt to the claimant.”); 38 C.F.R. § 3.102 (“When, after careful consideration of all procurable and assembled data, a reasonable doubt arises ... such doubt will be resolved in favor of the claimant.”).

Mrs. Butler then filed a complaint under the FTCA on June 2, 2010, in the Middle District of North Carolina alleging claims for wrongful death and loss of consortium against the United States (“the Government”). She alleged, inter alia, that the pre-surgical, surgical, and post-surgical medical care that Mr. Butler received was “not in accordance with the standards of practice among members of the health care profession with similar training and experience.” (J.A. 10.)

Mrs. Butler moved for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that under 38 U.S.C. § 511 (§ 511) the district court was bound by decisions of law and fact made by the VA during the benefits claim adjudication and consequently the Court does not have the authority or jurisdiction to review or overrule those decisions.” (J.A. 28.) 1 Contending that the findings in the Rating Decision were binding on the district court, Mrs. Butler averred those findings conclusively established liability for negligence on behalf of the Government for FTCA purposes. She represented to the district court that she would therefore not present any expert witness testimony at a trial on the merits. In Mrs. Butler's view, expert testimony was unnecessary in order to prove negligence or causation because the binding effect of the Rating Decision under § 511 established those essential elements of her causes of action.

In response, the Government moved for summary judgment “because no genuine issue of material fact exists since Plaintiff has admitted ... she will not call any expert witnesses to prove her medical malpractice case.” (J.A. 34.) The Government cited, in support, the requirement under North Carolina law in a medical malpractice action “to present expert testimony to establish the standard of care and causation.” (J.A. 34.) Further, the Government demurred to Mrs. Butler's contention that a Rating Decision under § 1151 had preclusive effect in a separate FTCA action by virtue of § 511 because “federal district courts have exclusive jurisdiction over FTCA claims and ... no other entity may make binding determinations necessary to the liability of the government in a FTCA action.” (J.A. 46.)

The magistrate judge issued a Recommendation to deny Mrs. Butler's motion for judgment on the pleadings and to grant the Government's motion for summary judgment.2 In the Recommendation, the magistrate judge reasoned that because the claims asserted by Mrs. Butler in her FTCA suit were unrelated to the previous award of VA benefits, § 511 was inapplicable and did not deprive the district court of jurisdiction or preclude the court from making its own findings of fact and conclusions of law. The magistrate judge further recommended that summary judgment be granted to the Government because the medical injury in question was outside of the knowledge and experience of a layperson, and expert testimony was required to prove the standard of care and causation under North Carolina law, the applicable law for FTCA purposes.

Mrs. Butler filed objections to the magistrate judge's Recommendation and the Government filed a response. On October 31, 2011, the district court entered an order adopting the magistrate judge's Recommendation, granting the Government's motion for summary judgment, and dismissing the case.

Mrs. Butler noted a timely appeal, and we have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291.


We review de novo the district court's ruling on a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c), and in doing so, apply the standard for a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 243 (4th Cir.1999). “The purpose of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is to test the sufficiency of a complaint; ‘importantly, [a Rule 12(b)(6) motion] does not resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.’ Id. (quoting Republican Party v. Martin, 980 F.2d 943, 952 (4th Cir.1992) (alteration in original)).

We review the district court's grant of summary judgment de novo, applying the same standard as the district court. See Nat'l City Bank of Ind. v. Turnbaugh, 463 F.3d 325, 329 (4th Cir.2006). Summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a).


The central issue Mrs. Butler raises on appeal is whether the district court erred in denying her motion for judgment on the pleadings. She contends 38 U.S.C. § 511 precluded the district court from making independent findings of fact or law as to her FTCA claims because the statute makes the conclusions of the Rating Decision binding in any other proceeding. As a consequence, Mrs. Butler argues that the VA's findings in the Rating Decision establish all that is necessary for her to prove the Government's liability for negligence and causation in her FTCA action. We disagree.

Section 511 provides in pertinent part:

The Secretary [of Veterans Affairs] shall decide all questions of law and fact necessary to a decision by the Secretary under a law that affects the provision of benefits by the Secretary to veterans or the dependents or survivors of veterans. Subject to subsection (b), the decision of the Secretary as to any such question shall be final and conclusive and may not be reviewed by any other official or by any court, whether by an action in the nature of mandamus or otherwise.

38 U.S.C. § 511(a) (emphasis added).3 Mrs. Butler contends that this statutory language should be construed as a bar to any court which might consider the same facts in any proceeding from reaching a conclusion contrary to the Rating Decision. Although § 511 provides that the decision of the VA as to “any such question” is final and conclusive, the “question” referred to is limited only to those “necessary to a decision by the Secretary under a law that affects the...

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