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Jackson v. United States

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 31, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, et al., Defendants.


          Royce C. Lamberth, United States District Court.


         On November 22, 1963, in what has become a defining moment of modern American history, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed while riding in a motorcade through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, while surrounded by onlookers. In this crowd stood several citizens filming the presidential motorcade before, during, and after the assassination. The films shot by such individuals became significantly important to both investigators, such as the Warren Commission, and to the American people for decades to come. Nearly every American is aware of the most famous of these-the Zapruder film, which clearly captured the fatal shot-and younger generations are taught about it in their history classes. Underscoring its significance, in 1999 the United States government was ordered to pay the family of Abraham Zapruder $16 million for the film, which it had retained since 1978, calling it a “unique historical item of unprecedented worth.”

         A much lesser known video of the assassination and the ensuing aftermath was filmed by Orville Nix (the “Nix film”). Like the Zapruder film, it eventually made its way into the possession of the United States government, which used the film in its investigation of the assassination. The granddaughter of Mr. Nix, Gayle Nix Jackson, who now brings this lawsuit to recover the Nix film from the government or for just compensation in the amount of $10 million, argues that the Nix film is nearly as important as the Zapruder film. She brings claims for replevin and for taking without just compensation.

         The government has moved to dismiss based on lack of standing, lack of jurisdiction, and failure to state a claim. The Court finds that it lacks subject matter jurisdiction over both of Ms. Jackson's claims and will accordingly dismiss this case.


         The Nix film, shot from the corner of Main and Houston Streets in Dealey Plaza, captured the presidential motorcade entering Dealey Plaza, the fatal shot to President Kennedy (from behind and to the left of the President, with the grassy knoll in the background), and the aftermath of the assassination.[1] On December 1, 1963, Mr. Nix delivered the developed film to the office of Gordon Shanklin, head of the FBI field office in Dallas. Four days later, a copy of the film made for the FBI was sent to FBI headquarters. During this time, United Press International (“UPI”), Time, and other media outlets sought to purchase film of the assassination. While the Nix film was in the possession of the FBI in Dallas, Mr. Nix was contacted by Life magazine and also met with Burt Reinhardt, the general manager of UPI's newsfilm division. On December 6, 1963, Mr. Nix sold the original film to UPI for $5, 000, and Mr. Reinhardt agreed that he would return the film to Mr. Nix's family in 25 years. The FBI then used a copy of the Nix film to study the assassination and the Warren Commission used the film in its investigation. On January 17, 1972, Mr. Nix passed away.

         In 1988, 25 years after Mr. Nix sold his original film to UPI, plaintiff Gayle Nix Jackson made inquiries to UPI in an effort to have the original Nix film and copyrights returned to the Nix family per the agreement between Mr. Nix and Mr. Reinhardt, who confirmed the agreement. In 1991, UPI's successor returned all material related to the film to the Nix family except the original Nix film. Since 1988, Ms. Jackson has been attempting to find the missing original film. In 2014, Ms. Jackson learned that in 1978 the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations (“HSCA”) obtained the original Nix film and used it in its investigation of the Kennedy assassination. After the HSCA completed its tenure, the Nix film was to be accounted for and stored by the National Archives and Records Administration (“NARA”), including an index of the chain of custody. In 2015, Ms. Jackson requested the original film and the chain of custody index from the NARA. The NARA told Ms. Jackson that it never possessed the original film and that it had no information about it from the HSCA. It also stated that the chain of custody index was missing. The original film and the chain of custody index remain missing to this day.

         In 1992, President George W. Bush signed into law the John F. Kennedy Records Collection Act, which sought to preserve all records related to the assassination of President Kennedy, and which required the disclosure and transmission of all assassination records to the National Archives and Records Administration (“NARA”). As defined by the Act, “assassination records” included the Nix film. According to the Act, the NARA is directed to release media and film related to the assassination in October of 2017. Ms. Jackson contends that it is at this time that a proper accounting and inventory of the HSCA and/or NARA records including the original Nix film will be produced if such records exist. Otherwise, a permanent taking of the film has taken place.

         Ms. Jackson raises two causes of action in this lawsuit. First, she raises a claim for replevin, contending that she is the owner of the Nix film, that the film's value is at least $10 million, and that the government is the last known possessor of the film but has failed to produce the film, acting with ignorance, negligence, omission, or concealment. She also raises a claim under the Fifth Amendment for taking of private property for public purpose without just compensation. She argues that the government possessed the film and had a duty to protect and preserve it, but lost it or allowed it to be stolen or destroyed.

         The government raises several grounds for dismissal, the most relevant of which are failure to exhaust administrative remedies for the replevin claim, and lack of jurisdiction over the takings claim. The Court will address each in turn.


         Ms. Jackson's replevin claim is brought pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act, [2] which waives sovereign immunity and gives district courts jurisdiction to hear tort claims brought against the government. See 28 U.S.C. 1346(b)(1). The FTCA requires plaintiffs to first exhaust their administrative remedies before filing suit in court; the plaintiff must have “first presented the claim to the appropriate Federal agency and his claim shall have been finally denied by the agency in writing and sent by certified or registered mail.” 28 U.S.C. § 2675(a). To meet the exhaustion requirement, a plaintiff must have filed “(1) a written statement sufficiently describing the injury to enable the agency to begin its own investigation, and (2) a sum-certain damages claim.” GAF Corp. v. United States, 818 F.2d 901, 919 (D.C. Cir. 1987). This “enable[s] the agency to investigate and ascertain the strength of a claim” and “to determine whether settlement or negotiations to that end are desirable.” Id. at 920. This is “a burden of notice, not substantiation, of claims.” Id. at 919.

         Plaintiffs bringing claims under the FTCA must fully comply with its provisions; “absent full compliance with the conditions the Government has placed upon its waiver [of sovereign immunity], courts lack jurisdiction to entertain tort claims against it.” Id. at 904, 917-18. The “administrative exhaustion requirement [of the FTCA] is a jurisdictional prerequisite; and the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over common law tort claims against the United States for which a plaintiff has not exhausted his administrative remedies.” Hayes v. United States, 539 F.Supp.2d 393, 398-99 (D.D.C. 2008). Thus if a plaintiff has not exhausted her administrative remedies before initiating a civil action under the FTCA, the court must dismiss for lack of subject matter ...

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