Relf v. United States

Decision Date29 January 1977
Docket NumberCiv. A. No. 74-224.
Citation433 F. Supp. 423
PartiesMary Alice RELF et al., Plaintiffs, v. UNITED STATES of America et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Columbia

Kent A. Russell, admitted pro hac vice, of Belli, Ashe & Choulos, San Francisco, Cal., and Henry E. Weil of Belli, Weil & Jacobs, Rockville, Md., for plaintiffs.

Donald E. Jose, Trial Atty., Dept. of Justice, Washington, D. C., for defendants.


GASCH, District Judge.

This action is brought on behalf of two black females who allege that at the respective ages of twelve and fourteen they were wrongfully subjected to surgical tubal sterilization without the informed consent of their parents. These sterilizations were performed on June 14, 1973 in Montgomery, Alabama by medical personnel of the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic ("Clinic") under the auspices of the Montgomery Community Action Committee ("Montgomery CAC"). This latter organization was created pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 2790 for the purpose of carrying out the policies of the Economic Opportunity Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2701 et seq.; at the time pertinent to this action, it was a federal grantee receiving funds from the Office of Economic Opportunity ("OEO").

On February 4, 1974, plaintiffs filed this action against the United States and against several federal officers in their personal as well as their official capacities.1 They charged these officials with negligence in connection with a decision made within the Executive Branch2 not to issue and distribute certain sterilization guidelines3 to OEO grantees such as the Montgomery CAC.4 Recovery was sought also against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act5 both on the basis of this alleged negligence within the Executive Branch and for the alleged tortious conduct of the local Clinic and Montgomery CAC personnel directly involved in the sterilization procedures.

On October 7, 1976, plaintiffs entered a voluntary dismissal with prejudice as to all individual defendants with the exception of Dr. E. Leon Cooper, former Director of Health Affairs for the Office of Economic Opportunity. Presently before the Court are the motions of Dr. Cooper and the United States for summary judgment as to all claims.6 For the reasons set forth briefly below, the Court finds that both motions for summary judgment should be granted.


When the plaintiffs initially brought this action, they sought to recover against the United States on dual theories of Federal Tort Claims Act liability. First, they sought to hold the federal government liable for the alleged tortious acts of the Clinic and Montgomery CAC personnel directly involved in the sterilization procedures, under the asserted theory that those persons were "federal employees" within the meaning of the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b). Second, they advanced an assertion of federal liability in connection with certain specific actions (or inactions) of several federal officials in Washington, D.C. The United States has moved for summary judgment, arguing that it bears no Federal Tort Claims Act liability under either of these two theories.

With respect to plaintiffs' first asserted theory of recovery, the Supreme Court has recently resolved the controversy respecting the status of federal grantee personnel in connection with attempts to impose federal liability for their alleged torts. In United States v. Orleans, 425 U.S. 807, 816-819, 96 S.Ct. 1971, 48 L.Ed.2d 390 (1976), a unanimous Court held that a community action agency which was established and maintained with OEO funding is not a federal agency and its employees are not federal employees for purposes of federal liability under the Federal Tort Claims Act.7 The Court accordingly reversed the Sixth Circuit decision upon which these plaintiffs relied8 and approved the line of cases which had established the prevailing weight of authority on this question. See, e. g., Vincent v. United States, 513 F.2d 1296, 1297-98 (8th Cir. 1975); Hughes v. United States, 383 F.Supp. 1071, 1072 (S.D.Iowa 1973). Consequently, plaintiffs' counsel disregarded this theory of recovery in their final pleadings and formally withdrew it at oral argument.

Plaintiffs' second and only remaining theory of recovery against the United States stems from the decision made within the Office of Economic Opportunity not to issue and distribute certain sterilization guidelines, a decision which plaintiffs assert to be the proximate cause of their allegedly wrongful sterilizations.9 It is undisputed that in May of 1971 the Office of Economic Opportunity changed its policy toward sterilization as embodied by OEO Instruction 6130-1.10 This Instruction amended an earlier OEO regulation11 by removing the then-existing prohibition on the use of OEO funds for surgical sterilizations. It did not, however, expressly authorize any grantees to use OEO funds for this purpose; it merely evidenced a new policy under which the Office of Economic Opportunity would consider the funding of sterilization programs upon the application of a grantee agency, such as the Montgomery CAC.12

After the promulgation of this Instruction, the Family Planning Division of OEO's Office of Health Affairs drafted guidelines for any sterilizations to be performed by OEO grantees with OEO funding. These guidelines were finalized as OEO Instruction 6130-213 and were printed in preparation for official issuance and distribution to all appropriate grantee organizations. For numerous asserted and contested reasons, however, and in the face of much evident criticism and controversy, defendant Cooper decided not to issue officially this Instruction.14 It is plaintiffs' contention that such issuance and distribution "would have prevented the tragedy" which befell them.15

It is the position of the United States that the particular decisionmaking upon which plaintiffs rest this claim cannot be the basis upon which federal liability may be imposed under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The United States maintains that Dr. Cooper's decision, although most certainly controversial and quite possibly unwise, nevertheless falls squarely within the well-recognized "discretionary function" exception to that Act. Section 2680(a) of the Federal Tort Claims Act provides as follows:

The provisions of this chapter and section 1346(b) of this title shall not apply to —
(a) Any claims based upon an act or omission of an employee of the Government, exercising due care, in the execution of a statute or regulation, whether or not such statute or regulation be valid, or based upon the exercise or performance or the failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty on the part of a federal agency or an employee of the Government, whether or not the discretion involved be abused.

28 U.S.C. § 2680(a) (emphasis added).

In numerous pleadings as well as at oral argument, plaintiffs have argued at great length that the Court should not apply this exception in the instant case. They reason that the promulgation of OEO Instruction 6130-1, which signalled a marked shift in OEO's sterilization policy, was the exercise of a discretionary function, but that the omitted issuance of the sterilization guidelines, OEO Instruction 6130-2 (unissued), "was purely a ministerial act."16 For support, plaintiffs point out that an appropriate judicial standard for determining the applicability of the discretionary function exception is the "planning vs. operations level" test. Several courts have held that the exception is not applicable where the challenged conduct is at an "operations level," even though such conduct is required for the execution of a planning level decision. See Eastern Air Lines, Inc. v. Union Trust Co., 95 U.S.App.D.C. 189, 221 F.2d 62, 78, aff'd per curiam sub nom. United States v. Union Trust Co., 350 U.S. 907, 76 S.Ct. 192, 100 L.Ed. 796 (1955); Swanson v. United States, 229 F.Supp. 217, 221 (N.D.Cal. 1964). Plaintiffs therefore make the argument that Dr. Cooper's decision to withhold distribution of the finalized and printed guidelines involved what was a mere operational implementation of the OEO policy change previously announced. Although plaintiffs have advanced scant factual analysis in support of this view, their ultimate conclusion is that this Court should find Dr. Cooper's decision to be outside of the exception because it was assertedly not "based on considerations of public policy."17

However, the Court finds that Dr. Cooper's decision not to officially issue and distribute the sterilization guidelines pending the resolution of existing policy concerns is exactly the type of decisionmaking which Congress had in mind when enacting the discretionary function exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act. See Monarch Insurance Co. of Ohio v. District of Columbia, 353 F.Supp. 1249, 1258 (D.D.C.1973), aff'd, 162 U.S.App.D.C. 97, 497 F.2d 684 (1974). As has been stated by the Supreme Court in Dalehite v. United States, 346 U.S. 15, 73 S.Ct. 956, 97 L.Ed. 1427 (1953), the discretionary function exception is properly construed to include "determinations made by executives or administrators in establishing plans, specifications or schedules of operations. Where there is room for policy judgment and decision there is discretion." Id. at 35-36, 73 S.Ct. at 968. Although this construction has been narrowed somewhat by later cases,18 the exception unquestionably applies to decisions which of necessity involve the conscious balancing of policy considerations. J. H. Rutter Rex Manufacturing Co. v. United States, 515 F.2d 97, 99 (5th Cir. 1975); see Griffin v. United States, 500 F.2d 1059, 1064 (3rd Cir. 1974). See also Moyer v. Martin Marietta Corp., 481 F.2d 585, 597-98 (5th Cir. 1973). This would seem to be most particularly so with respect to those high-echelon decisions which by their very nature require the careful consideration of...

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7 cases
  • Allen v. United States, Civ. No. C 79-0515.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Utah
    • August 21, 1981
    ...28 U.S.C. § 2680(a), have cautiously observed the apparent narrowing of Dalehite by Indian Towing and Rayonier. See Relf v. United States, 433 F.Supp. 423, 427 (D.D.C.1977). The "planning/operational" distinction offered by Justice Reed in Dalehite has grown increasingly ineffective in harm......
  • Sami v. U.S.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — District of Columbia Circuit
    • December 28, 1979
    ...decision not to distribute to federally funded clinics promulgated guidelines concerning sterilization, Relf v. United States, 433 F.Supp. 423 (D.D.C.1977), aff'd mem., 593 F.2d 1371 The multitude of cases applying the exception to a variety of fact situations are conveniently catalogued in......
  • Allen v. U.S.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Tenth Circuit
    • April 20, 1987
    ...thought the Supreme Court intended to narrow the sweep of its Dalehite interpretation of that exception. See, e.g., Relf v. United States, 433 F.Supp. 423, 427 (D.D.C.1977), aff'd, 593 F.2d 1371 (D.C.Cir.1979). Following that pattern, the trial court in this case focused on the decisions ma......
  • District of Columbia v. Jones
    • United States
    • D.C. Court of Appeals
    • March 29, 2007
    ...former United States Attorney for defamation, malicious interference with employment, and "outrageous conduct"); Relf v. United States, 433 F.Supp. 423 (D.D.C.1977) (applying Barr v. Matteo and holding that former director was entitled to absolute immunity in connection with his controversi......
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