(CN) - The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to consider whether the dismissal of an inmate's prison assault claim under Federal Tort Claim Act exception precludes him from pursing a separate lawsuit against the guards who allegedly let the attack happen.
Walter Himmelreich is an inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn., where he is serving a 240-month sentence for the production of child pornography. In February 2010, he sued the United States in federal court in Ohio, claiming that file being held in a prison there, he was violently attacked by a fellow prisoner.
Himmelreich claimed prison officials learned of his attacker's desire to "smash" a peodophile, but nevertheless placed the two men together in the general prison population where the attack occurred four days later.
In October 2010, Himmelreich filed a separate lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prison and its employees, Jermaine Simmons and Brian Butts claiming their roles in placing the two inmates together violated his rights under the Eighth Amendment.
A month later, U.S. District Judge John Adams dismissed Himmelreich's initial lawsuit under the Federal Tort Claim Act's discretionary-function exception.
Adams explained his ruling by pointing out Himmelreich had not alleged the guards were aware of any specific threat made against him, and that decisions regarding inmate safety are, in the end, an exercise of judgment.
The judge went on to note that the section of the Act relevant to the case is an exception to its general waiver of sovereign immunity from tort claims against the United States.
In March 2011, Judge Adams tossed Himmelreich's other lawsuit for failure to state a claim.
A year later, the Sixth Circuit remanded Himmelreich's Eighth Amendment claim alleging Simmons and Butts failed to protect him from an inmate-on-inmate assault. The district court then granted the government's motion for summary judgment on the grounds that Himmelreich failed to exhaust his administrative remedies and that his second lawsuit was precluded by the Act's judgment bar, which "establishes a 'complete bar' to 'any action' against government employees in connection with acts that have been the subject of an action under ... the FTCA that has gone to 'judgment.'"
To hammer the point home, the court noted that Himmelreich''s Eighth Amendment claim arises out of the very same occurrence as his prior suit, the assault in 2008, and the same actions: the alleged prison's failure to protect him.
The Sixth Circuit reversed, excusing Himmelreich's failure to exhaust his administrative remedies on the grounds that he claimed to have been threatened by prison officials who allegedly pressured him into not pursing them.
The three-judge panel also held the Act's judgment bar did not apply to the inmate's Eighth Amendment claim because the district court ultimately dismissed the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and in the absence of jurisdiction, it reasoned, the court lacked the power to enter any judgment at all on the Eighth Amendment question.
The panel also noted that as a general rule, "a dismissal for a lack of subject matter jurisdiction carries no preclusive effect."
The petitioners filed their petition for a writ of certiorari on July 23, 2015. Himmelreich filed his response on Sept. 22.
As is their custom, the justices did not explain their reasons for taking up the case.
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