Justices Say Prisoner Can Sue Guards for Attack

     (CN) — The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that the dismissal of an inmate’s prison-assault claim under a Federal Tort Claims Act exception doesn’t preclude him from pursing a separate lawsuit against guards he says 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 while 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, 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.”
     On Monday, the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Sixth Circuit and held that the judgment bar provision doesn’t apply to claims dismissed under the Act’s discretionary-function exception, or any other exception.
     “The judgment bar is a provision of Chapter 171. The ‘exceptions’ section’s plain text thus dictates that the judgment bar does ‘not apply’ to cases that, like Himmelreich’s first suit, are based on the performance of a discre­tionary function,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the high court. “Because the judgment bar provision does not apply to Himmelreich’s first suit, his second suit—against individual prison employees—should be permitted to go forward. Nothing about the “exceptions” section or the judgment bar provision gives this court any reason to disregard the plain text of the statute.”
     Sotomayor said the government’s counterargument “is a parade of horribles that it believes will come to pass if every provision of Chapter 171 ‘shall not apply’ to the ‘exceptions’ category of claims,” a viewpoint the Supreme Court disagreed with.
     “Had the district court in this case issued a judgment dismissing Himmel­reich’s first suit because, e.g., the prison employees were not negli­gent, it would make sense that the judgment bar provision would prevent a second suit against the employees,” Sotomayor wrote. “But where an FTCA claim is dismissed because it falls within one of the ‘exceptions,’ the dismissal signals merely that the United States cannot be held liable for a particular claim; it has no logical bearing on whether an em­ployee can be liable instead.”

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