Hedges v. U.S.

Decision Date15 April 2005
Docket NumberNo. 03-4395.,03-4395.
Citation404 F.3d 744
PartiesDean HEDGES, Appellant v. UNITED STATES of America; Environmental Moorings International
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit

K. Glenda Cameron (Argued), Law Office of Rohn & Cameron, Christiansted, St. Croix, for Appellant.

Michelle Delemarre (Argued), United States Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., for Appellee.

Before: SLOVITER, FUENTES, and GREENBERG, Circuit Judges.

SLOVITER, Circuit Judge.

Appellant Dean Hedges, whose sailboat was destroyed by heavy seas after it was moored at the Virgin Islands National Park, appeals from the District Court's dismissal of his admiralty claim against the United States for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. We must decide whether equitable tolling is applicable to save Hedges' claim. The District Court for the Virgin Islands had jurisdiction under the Suits in Admiralty Act ("SAA"), 46 U.S.C. §§ 741-752; this court has jurisdiction from the District Court's final order pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291.

I.

On December 12, 1996, Hedges' boat broke free from its Virgin Islands National Park ("VINP") mooring and drifted onto nearby rocks, where it was destroyed. The painter line on the mooring, which was manufactured by Environmental Moorings International ("EMI"), appeared to have chaffed and come apart under harsh weather conditions. Hedge's boat was uninsured.

Shortly after the incident, Hedges sought advice from several Park Service employees regarding the proper avenue to pursue a claim against the United States. Hedges first contacted Mary Morris, the National Park Service ("NPS") Concessions Officer in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, who had issued Hedges' permit to enter the VINP. He claims that Morris advised him to file a claim pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA"), and then mailed him a standard claim form ("SF-95"). Hedges then contacted Department of Interior ("DOI") Attorney Patricia Cortelyou-Hamilton, who responded by letter dated January 14, 1997:

Enclosed per your request, please find a copy of Standard Form 95. The completed form along with copies of all supporting documentation, should be sent to: Ms. Linda Giles [the Safety & Health Manager for the National Park Service] ... Inquiries can be directed to the undersigned....

App. at 108. Next, Hedges claims to have contacted Linda Giles who confirmed that a FTCA claim, filed on a SF-95 form, was the proper avenue for obtaining relief. Finally, Hedges contacted VINP Service Superintendent Francis Peliter who, on February 6, 1997, sent a letter to Hedges that read in its entirety: "I received your fax dated January 17, 1997 on February 3, 1997. I have asked Mrs. Mary Morris and Keith Watson of my staff to work with you on these issues." App. at 104.

On December 11, 1998, Hedges, proceeding pro se,1 filed an administrative claim under the FTCA claiming property damage of $77,445.83. His claim also alleged personal injury damages of $15,000 due to a period of depression, allegedly brought on by the loss of his boat. On October 7, 1999 the DOI denied his claim. The Field Solicitor first reasoned that Hedges had alleged a maritime tort, a cause of action cognizable under the SAA, not the FTCA, and that under the comparative negligence regime for claims sounding in admiralty, Hedges did not have a meritorious claim. He concluded that whereas the United States "excercised [sic] reasonable care to make the mooring and the painter line safe," Hedges acted negligently by leaving his boat unattended during harsh weather conditions. App. 41-47.

On November 6, 1999, Hedges wrote a letter to the DOI protesting the denial of his claim, arguing that he did have a colorable cause of action under the FTCA, and emphasizing that it was impractical for him to hire an attorney because attorney costs would likely be more than the value of his boat. On November 19, 1999, the DOI issued a second denial of Hedges' claim. Hedges once again protested this denial by submitting several letters and making several phone calls to the DOI. On January 25, 2000, the DOI issued its final denial of Hedges' administrative claim, stating that "[w]e have carefully examined the facts of your case and must deny your claim under both the Federal Tort Claims Act and under the Suits in Admiralty Act." App. at 57.

On January 5, 2000, before he had received the final denial of his claim from the DOI, Hedges filed a complaint against the United States and EMI in the District Court of the United States Virgin Islands, St. Croix Division, alleging diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332. On January 19, 2000, Hedges amended his complaint to assert a claim under the FTCA.

On March 24, 2000, the United States filed a Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) Motion to Dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The Government argued that the SAA provides the exclusive jurisdiction for maritime tort claims against the United States, see T.J. Falgout Boats, Inc. v. United States, 508 F.2d 855 (9th Cir.1974), cert. denied, 421 U.S. 1000, 95 S.Ct. 2398, 44 L.Ed.2d 667 (1975), and that the two-year statutory limitations period under the SAA had lapsed. In his Opposition to the Motion to Dismiss, Hedges both moved to amend his complaint to plead jurisdiction under the SAA and argued that the statute of limitations should be equitably tolled because he had been "induced" by National Park Service personnel to "abstain from filing in [District] Court until after pursuing [an] administrative claim with the Federal Tort Claims Act." App. at 37.

After successive motions, and an oral hearing at which Hedges testified, the District Court entered a memorandum opinion granting the United States' Motion to Dismiss. The Court held that the statute of limitations in the SAA was a jurisdictional prerequisite to suit, and that even if equitable tolling were applicable, it was unwarranted in the present case. Hedges and EMI then settled, and Hedges filed a timely notice of appeal from the District Court's June 30, 2003 order dismissing his action.

II.

The applicable statute provides that suits in admiralty against the United States must be brought "within two years after the cause of action arises," 46 U.S.C. § 745. An action arises on the date of injury. McMahon v. United States, 342 U.S. 25, 27, 72 S.Ct. 17, 96 L.Ed. 26 (1951); Bovell v. United States Dep't of Defense, 735 F.2d 755, 756 (3d Cir.1984). Hedges concedes that his complaint, submitted on January 5, 2000 and amended on May 25, 2000, was filed after the statutory period expired. He argues, however, that the time in which he erroneously pursued an administrative claim under the FTCA should be excluded under the doctrine of equitable tolling and that the District Court erred by failing to do so.

We must first consider whether the doctrine of equitable tolling is available to suits brought pursuant to the SAA. If the two-year limitations period in the SAA is a jurisdictional mandate, equitable tolling would not be available. See Miller v. New Jersey State Dep't. of Corrections, 145 F.3d 616, 617-18 (3d Cir.1998) ("[W]hen a time limitation is considered jurisdictional, it cannot be modified and non-compliance is an absolute bar."); Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1387 (3d Cir.1994) ("Where the filing requirements are considered `jurisdictional,' non-compliance bars an action regardless of the equities in a given case."); see also Robinson v. Dalton, 107 F.3d 1018, 1021 (3d Cir.1997) (stating that exhaustion requirement of Title VII not jurisdictional and therefore subject to equitable tolling).

In Bovell, we stated that "[t]he Supreme Court has construed the SAA statute of limitations, 46 U.S.C. § 745, as a jurisdictional prerequisite to the waiver of sovereign immunity contained in the SAA." 735 F.2d at 756 (citing McMahon v. United States, 342 U.S. 25, 27, 72 S.Ct. 17, 96 L.Ed. 26 (1951)). Accordingly, we held that the two-year limitations period of the SAA could not be tolled for the period of time that a plaintiff erroneously pursued administrative relief under the FTCA. We stated that even if equitable tolling may apply to § 745 in "appropriate circumstances ... the latitude which has allowed tolling of statutes of limitations under certain other statutory schemes, ... is usually not applied to statutes waving sovereign immunity." Bovell, 735 F.2d at 757. We concluded that no tolling was warranted under the circumstances of that case.

Bovell, however, was decided before the Supreme Court's decision in Irwin v. Dep't of Veterans Affairs, 498 U.S. 89, 111 S.Ct. 453, 112 L.Ed.2d 435 (1990), which held that statutes of limitations governing actions against the United States are subject to "the same rebuttable presumption of equitable tolling applicable to suits against private defendants." Id. at 96, 111 S.Ct. 453; see also United States v. Beggerly, 524 U.S. 38, 118 S.Ct. 1862, 141 L.Ed.2d 32 (1998); United States v. Brockamp, 519 U.S. 347, 117 S.Ct. 849, 136 L.Ed.2d 818 (1997).

In Irwin, the Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether equitable tolling applied to a Title VII claim filed after the thirty-day statutory limitations period. The Court stated that:

Once Congress has made such a waiver [of sovereign immunity], we think that making the rule of equitable tolling applicable to suits against the Government, in the same way that it is applicable to private suits, amounts to little, if any broadening of the congressional waiver.... We therefore hold that the same rebuttable presumption of equitable tolling applicable to suits against private defendants should also apply to suits against the United States. Congress, of course, may provide otherwise if it wishes to do so.

498 U.S. 89, 95-96, 111 S.Ct. 453, 112 L.Ed.2d 435. In articulating this "general rule to govern the applicability of equitable tolling in suits against the Government," the Court expressed its intent to...

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