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Johnson v. United States

August 11, 2009

JAMES F. JOHNSON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reggie B. Walton United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This matter is before the Court on the defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint.*fn1 For the reasons set forth below, the motion will be granted.

I. BACKGROUND

At all times relevant to the complaint, the plaintiff was a prisoner incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Fort Dix, New Jersey ("FCI Fort Dix"). On or about January 10, 2007, the plaintiff was taken by ambulance to the Saint Francis Medical Center for the treatment of head injuries sustained in an altercation with a staff member. See Compl. at 2. Because inmates were not allowed to take property with them when transported to a location outside the correctional facility, the plaintiff's property, including items purchased from the prison commissary, a "Sony radio, head phones, Daisey typing wheel, typing ribbon, legal documents [and an] inmate ID card, were immediately confiscated [by BOP staff] for 'security reasons[.]'" Id. Upon the plaintiff's return to FCI Fort Dix, a property officer returned the confiscated property to him. Id at 2-3. At that time, the plaintiff noted that his radio and other items were missing. Id. at 3.

The plaintiff submitted an administrative claim to the Federal Bureau of Prisons ("BOP") under the Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA"), see 28 U.S.C. § 1346 (2006), demanding $139.15 as compensation for the lost property. See Compl. at 3; see also id. at 4, Ex. 5 (August 28, 2007 Memorandum regarding Administrative Tort Claim No. TRT-NER-2007-02549). The BOP denied the administrative claim, offering the plaintiff the following explanation:

You signed an Inmate Personal Property Release form on January 10, 2007 and January 23, 2007. Your signature indicates the accuracy of the inventory on both dates. On January 10, 2007, a radio was the only item you indicated was missing. You provided no evidence you possessed a radio on this date. On January 23, 2007, you did not list any items as missing. There is no evidence to suggest you experienced a compensable loss as the result of negligence on the part of any [BOP] employee.

Id. at 4, Ex. 5.

The Court construes the complaint as bringing claims against the United States of America under the FTCA and under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and against the Director of the BOP in his individual capacity under Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Fed. Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). The plaintiff demands compensatory and punitive damages totaling $150,000. Compl. at 3. The defendants move to dismiss on two grounds: (1) that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the FTCA claim, and (2) that the complaint fails to state a civil rights claim. See Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Defendant's [sic] Motion to Dismiss ("Defs.' Mot.") at 4-9.

II. DISCUSSION*fn2

A. FTCA Claim*fn3

"It is axiomatic that the United States may not be sued without its consent and that the existence of consent is a prerequisite for jurisdiction." United States v. Mitchell, 463 U.S. 206, 212 (1983). "Absent a waiver, sovereign immunity shields the Federal Government and its agencies from suit." Fed. Deposit Ins. Corp. v. Meyer, 510 U.S. 471, 475 (1994). The FTCA serves as a limited waiver of sovereign immunity, rendering the United States amenable to suit for certain, but not all, tort claims. See Richards v. United States, 369 U.S. 1, 6 (1962); Scanwell Lab., Inc., v. Thomas, 521 F.2d 941, 947 (D.C. Cir. 1975); Richardson v. United States Dep't of the Interior, 740 F. Supp. 15, 20 n.10 (D.D.C. 1990). Generally, the FTCA provides that the "United States shall be liable [for tort claims] in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances." 28 U.S.C. § 2674 (2006). Individuals may bring "claims against the United States, for money damages . . . for injury or loss of property . . . 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." 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1) (2006).

The FTCA exempts from its waiver provision certain types of claims, see 28 U.S.C. §§ 2680(a)-(n) (2006), and the exemption relevant to this action bars "[a]ny claim arising in respect of the assessment or collection of any tax or customs duty, or the detention of any goods, merchandise, or other property by any officer of customs or excise or any other law enforcement officer." 28 U.S.C. § 2680(c) (emphasis added). This exception precludes a negligence claim arising from the detention of goods as well as the "negligent handling or storage of detained property." Kosak v. United States, 465 U.S. 848, 854 (1984). In addition, the Supreme Court has interpreted the phrase "any other law enforcement officer" to encompass BOP officers. Ali v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 552 U.S. 214, __, 128 S.Ct. 831, 835-37 (2008).

Here, the plaintiff alleges that BOP staff confiscated his property when he left FCI Fort Dix for medical treatment and that certain items were lost. Because the plaintiff essentially claims negligence in the handling of his detained property by BOP officers, his claim is precluded under 28 U.S.C. § 2680(c). The FTCA claim, then, must be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. See McKinney v. United States, No. 05-344, 2009 WL 249366, at *2 (S.D. Ill. Feb. 3, 2009) (concluding that "the BOP detained McKinney's books when they confiscated them during McKinney's move to the Special Housing Unit and thus McKinney's property claim is therefore barred by 28 U.S.C. § 2680(c)"); Corley v. United States, No. 5:08cv177, 2008 WL 5412422, at *4 (S.D. Miss. Dec. 23, 2008) ...


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