Iverson v. United States

Decision Date31 August 2020
Docket NumberNo. 18-3137,18-3137
Citation973 F.3d 843
Parties Brian IVERSON, Plaintiff - Appellant v. UNITED STATES of America; Transportation Security Administration, Defendants - Appellees
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit

Sarah Hogarth, Paul Michael Thompson, McDermott & Will, Washington, DC, John R. Neve, Evan Weiner, Neve & Webb, PLLC, Minneapolis, MN, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Sharon Swingle, U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Division, Appellate Staff, Washington, DC, Ana H. Voss, Assistant U.S. Attorney, U.S. Attorney's Office, District of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, for Defendants-Appellees.

Before SMITH, Chief Judge, GRUENDER and BENTON, Circuit Judges.

SMITH, Chief Judge.

The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) waives sovereign immunity, allowing individuals to sue the United States for certain harms caused by its agents. For some torts, the FTCA specifies that an individual may only sue if the tort is committed by a specific class of government officer. This case involves a battery claim. Pursuant to the FTCA, a battery claim can proceed if an investigative or law enforcement officer committed it. 28 U.S.C. § 2680(h). The central question here is whether Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening personnel, known as Transportation Security Officers (TSOs), satisfy the FTCA's definition of an investigative or law enforcement officer . Holding that they do, we reverse and remand.

I. Background

Generally, sovereign immunity prevents "the United States [from being] sued without its consent." Hinsley v. Standing Rock Child Protective Servs. , 516 F.3d 668, 671 (8th Cir. 2008). When it passed the FTCA, Congress "remove[d] the sovereign immunity of the United States from suits in tort." Millbrook v. United States , 569 U.S. 50, 52, 133 S.Ct. 1441, 185 L.Ed.2d 531 (2013) (internal quotation omitted). "The Act gives federal district courts exclusive jurisdiction over claims against the United States for ‘injury or loss of property, or personal injury or death caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission’ of a federal employee ‘acting within the scope of his office or employment.’ " Id. (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1) ). Congress's waiver of sovereign immunity, however, "is subject to a number of exceptions set forth in § 2680." Id.

Specifically, Congress excepted certain intentional torts from the statutory waiver of sovereign immunity. This exception bars "[a]ny claim arising out of assault, battery, false imprisonment, false arrest, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, libel, slander, misrepresentation, deceit, or interference with contract rights." 28 U.S.C. § 2680(h). Thus, claims for these acts remain barred by sovereign immunity. To complicate matters, however, the statute also contains an exception to the exception. The "law-enforcement proviso" allows plaintiffs to file claims arising "out of assault, battery, false imprisonment, false arrest, abuse of process, [and] malicious prosecution." Id. The proviso only applies, however, to claims that are the result of "acts or omissions of investigative or law enforcement officers of the United States Government." Id. (emphasis added). The proviso defines investigative or law enforcement officer as "any officer of the United States who is empowered by law to execute searches, to seize evidence, or to make arrests for violations of Federal law." Id. In sum, a plaintiff may sue the United States for injuries resulting from assault, battery, false imprisonment, false arrest, abuse of process, and malicious prosecution, if committed by an investigative or law enforcement officer.

In this case, Brian Iverson went through security at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Because of a prior injury, Iverson walked with the aid of crutches. At the security checkpoint, TSOs performed a pat-down search. During that search, Iverson was allowed to place his hands on his crutches but had to stand on his own power. Iverson alleges that a TSO pulled him forward and then abruptly let go, causing Iverson to fall. The fall injured Iverson.

Iverson filed an administrative claim, which the TSA denied. He then filed this suit, asserting battery and negligence claims. The government moved to dismiss, arguing that the FTCA's waiver of sovereign immunity does not cover intentional torts, such as battery. It also asserted that the FTCA bars claims that arise out of an intentional tort, such as Iverson's negligence claim. Iverson argued that TSOs are investigative or law enforcement officers under the proviso, and thus they are not immune from suit. In the alternative, he argued that his negligence claim did not arise out of his battery claim. After finding for the government, the district court dismissed Iverson's complaint. This appeal followed.

II. Discussion

Iverson contends that TSOs are investigative or law enforcement officers under the proviso. See 28 U.S.C. § 2680(h). Therefore, he claims, the district court erred in finding that they are immune from suit. We review the district court's grant of a motion to dismiss de novo.

Miller v. Redwood Toxicology Lab., Inc. , 688 F.3d 928, 933 n.4 (8th Cir. 2012). In our review, we "accept[ ] all factual allegations in the complaint as true and draw[ ] all inferences in favor of the nonmovant." Id.

Are TSOs investigative or law enforcement officers under the law-enforcement proviso of the FTCA? See 28 U.S.C. § 2680(h). We begin with the statute's text. The statute defines those officers as "any officer of the United States who is empowered by law to execute searches , to seize evidence, or to make arrests for violations of Federal law." Id. (emphasis added).

The parties disagree about the meaning of the emphasized terms. Iverson contends a plain reading of the statute shows that TSOs are officers who are empowered by law to execute searches . The government disagrees and avers that the proviso refers only to "traditional" law enforcement activities, not to the work of the uniformed employees screening passengers at airports. Appellee's Br. at 17, 21–22. Thus, it claims, TSOs are not legally empowered to do those acts excepted from sovereign immunity's bar under any reading of the statute.

"When a statute includes an explicit definition, we must follow that definition, even if it varies from that term's ordinary meaning." Stenberg v. Carhart , 530 U.S. 914, 942, 120 S.Ct. 2597, 147 L.Ed.2d 743 (2000). But "[w]hen a word is not defined by statute, we normally construe it in accord with its ordinary or natural meaning." United States v. Jungers , 702 F.3d 1066, 1071 (8th Cir. 2013) (quoting Smith v. United States , 508 U.S. 223, 228, 113 S.Ct. 2050, 124 L.Ed.2d 138 (1993) ). We have stated that "[o]rdinarily, a word's usage accords with its dictionary definition." Thompson Truck & Trailer, Inc. v. United States , 901 F.3d 951, 953 (8th Cir. 2018) (quoting Yates v. United States , 574 U.S. 528, 135 S. Ct. 1074, 1082, 191 L.Ed.2d 64 (2015) ).

While interpreting another provision of § 2680, the Supreme Court has instructed that "[t]he definition[s] of words in insolation ... [are] not necessarily controlling in statutory construction." Dolan v. U.S. Postal Serv. , 546 U.S. 481, 486, 126 S.Ct. 1252, 163 L.Ed.2d 1079 (2006). "A word in a statute may or may not extend to the outer limits of its definitional possibilities. Interpretation of a word or phrase depends upon reading the whole statutory text, considering the purpose and context of the statute, and consulting any precedents or authorities that inform the analysis." Id.

Whether TSOs satisfy the law-enforcement proviso is a new issue for this court. Two of our sister circuits have addressed it but are divided on the answer. See generally Pellegrino v. U.S. Trans. Sec. Admin. , 937 F.3d 164, 180 (3d Cir. 2019) (en banc) (finding that TSOs constitute investigative or law enforcement officers ); Corbett v. Trans. Sec. Admin. , 568 F. App'x 690, 701 (11th Cir. 2014) (per curiam) (finding that TSOs do not constitute investigative or law enforcement officers ). Most recently, the Third Circuit, sitting en banc, found that TSOs satisfy the proviso's definition. See Pellegrino , 937 F.3d at 180.1 These decisions provide persuasive authority only. See Jaben v. United States , 333 F.2d 535, 538 (8th Cir. 1964).

We first address each term and the parties’ relevant arguments separately, but will bear in mind that when interpreting the statute, we consider "the whole statutory text." Dolan , 546 U.S. at 486, 126 S.Ct. 1252.

A. Officers

To qualify as an investigative or law enforcement officer under the proviso, a TSO must be "any officer of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2680(h) (emphasis added). The parties disagree about the definition of officer . Because the term is not statutorily defined, we consider its ordinary dictionary definition. See Thompson Truck & Trailer , 901 F.3d at 953.

Congress enacted the proviso in 1974. One dictionary from the time defines officer as "one charged with a duty" and "one who is appointed or elected to serve in a position of trust, authority, or command esp. as specif. provided for by law." Officer , Webster's Third New Int'l Dictionary (1971). Another defines officer as "[o]ne who is charged by a superior power (and particularly by government) with the power and duty of exercising certain functions" or "[o]ne who is invested with some portion of the functions of the government to be exercised for the public benefit." Officer , Black's Law Dictionary (4th ed., rev. 1968).

Applying those definitions, the Pellegrino majority found that TSOs are officers. See 937 F.3d at 170–72. These individuals are tasked with government functions, specifically, carrying out safety screenings at airports. Id. at 170. And, they perform those functions for the public's benefit. Id. It also noted that the TSA itself calls TSOs officers , and that "TSOs wear uniforms with badges that prominently display the title." Id.

We also conclude that TSOs are...

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