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A strict filing deadline slams the courthouse doors shut

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit recently ruled a claim for damages under the FTCA was too late. Because of the holding, a U.S. Citizen placed in immigration detainment – 1,273 days (three and a half years) – because of numerous errors has no remedy against the government.

FTCA – what does the acronym stand for? The Federal Tort Claims Act is how you bring a lawsuit against the government for the “wrongful or negligent act of a federal employee acting in the scope of his or her official duties.” This includes claims of medical malpractice against the VA. You must file these claims within two years of the date the claim accrues. This accrual date, however, can be very tricky and that is why we want to discuss this recent case.

Watson v. United States

The facts in the Watson case include errors and omissions at every turn in the immigration process. In immigration there is something called derivative citizenship – when a parent becomes a U.S. citizen, a child under the age of 18 also becomes a citizen at the same time. Watson became a U.S. citizen in 2002 when his father became a citizen.

After release from prison on a criminal matter May 8, 2008, federal Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) took Watson into custody claiming he did not have legal status to be in the country. During the immigration process, Watson was unable to retain an attorney or find pro bono representation. He went ahead on his own, pro se, continuing to assert he was a citizen.

Here were the relevant dates:

  • November 13, 2008 – an immigration judge orders Watson’s removal
  • July 2010 – pro bono counsel assigned by appellate court
  • May 31, 2011 – appeals court remands to Board of Immigration Appeals for clarification on a point of law
  • Two months later – ICE Chief Counsel admits probable citizenship. ICE then released Watson with no explanation.

Watson filed a FTCA claim for false imprisonment on October 30, 2013 (two years after his release from custody). The majority opinion held he was too late, because his cause of action for false imprisonment accrued when the immigration judge ordered his removal.

Equitable relief

Now you might be thinking, this does not sound fair, how was he supposed to bring a claim he did not know about prior to November 2010?

Equitable tolling can allow a case to proceed in certain circumstances. Watson’s eleventh-grade education, lack of legal training or awareness of FTCA relief along constantly hearing he was not a citizen were factors the district court cited for concluding his claims should be equitably tolled on June 31, 2014 when he learned about his right to sue. The New York district judge then awarded Watson $82,500 for the “regrettable failures of the government.”

The Second Circuit majority overruled the lower court finding it had abused its discretion. There was, however, a strong dissent on this issue. Judge Katzmann wrote, “I would hope nothing about Watson’s 1,273-day detention can be said to have been ‘an entirely common state of affairs.’ If it were, we should all be deeply trouble. An American citizen was detained on the basis of a ‘grossly negligent’ investigation that ‘led to [his] wrongful detention.’” This judge in dissent found that the long list of factors justified the equitable relief.

The legal analysis in this case was complicated, but it demonstrates that the limitations period can be harsh. The courts are also leery to grant equitable relief. This makes determining the date a cause of action accrued “make or break” in many cases.

Moral of the story: Do not delay in seeking legal counsel. If something did not seem right about the level of care at the VA, a medical mistake occurred at a federally funded clinic/hospital or you wonder whether there might be another claim against the US, talk with an experienced FTCA claims attorney.

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