NINE-TENTHS OF THE LAW
The old (and not necessarily flawed) legal aphorism goes something like “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” In the world of Federal Tort Claims Act litigation, the expressions would just as accurately read “discretion is nine-tenths of the law.”
What we did not tell you yesterday is that there are some exceptions you should know about. If a federal law enforcement agent seizes all of your stuff and then destroys it? Tough luck, fella. If the Postal Service loses your mail? You can guess. A surly Social Security Administration clerk punches you when you complain that you got shorted on your check? Pound sand. Don’t believe it? Read Title 28, U.S. Code, Section 2680(a).
Of all the exceptions, the one hardest to fathom (and easiest for the government to game us with) is the first exception. A district court has no jurisdiction (which means it cannot hear your lawsuit) over claims “based upon the exercise or performance or the failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty on the part of a federal agency or an employee of the Government.” 28 U.S.C. § 2680(a).
Some of this makes sense. The government decided not to build a dam on a river above your town. That does not mean the government is liable for the next flood. The government-run control tower at an airport closes at 10 p.m. The government is not liable for a collision on the runway at midnight.
But some of it may not. In today’s case, the U.S. Geological Survey constructed a “cableway” – a cable strung over a wild and scenic river in Arizona for the purpose of accessing a “streamgage” station, a series of devices used to measure river flow, temperature, turbidity and water level. When a helicopter struck the naked and unmarked cable, killing everyone on board, the survivors sued the USGS under the FTCA for negligence in failing to mark an obvious danger. After all, the USGS had had aircraft strike its cableways before. You’d think the agency would know better.
The Court of Appeals, however, affirmed that the USGS’s failure to mark the cable fell “squarely in this discretionary function exception.” With no evident sense of irony, the Court warned that the “invocation of the discretionary function doctrine in cases involving public safety should not be read as giving the government a pass every time it raises the exception.” Judging from this case, it is difficult to accept the Court’s admonition at face value.
Perry v. United States (In re Morales), 895 F.3d 708, 710 (9th Cir. 2018). The U.S. Geological Survey is a federal agency responsible for collecting scientific information about the “geological structure, mineral resources, and products of the national domain.” As part of its duties, USGS collects streamflow data and water quality samples to predict floods, manage drinking water, evaluate water quality standards, aid in the preservation of aquatic habitats, and investigate streamflow history and climate change. This information is collected through “streamgage” sites that include a continuously functioning measuring device that collects the mean daily streamflow in a particular watercourse. When a streamgage site is installed in a location without a bridge, USGS generally builds a cableway — a cable car suspended from a wire rope—to provide USGS personnel with safe access to the site.
In 1934, USGS installed a streamgage site and cableway over the Verde River Canyon in Prescott National Forest, Arizona. USGS has operated the streamgage site since 1932. The cable stretched 286 feet across the canyon at a height of 40 feet above the river. Despite the cable being virtually invisible from 100 feet or more away, or to aircraft flying at the same height, USGS did not mark the cableway or add warning signs because the cable did not meet the criteria for marking under USGS policy.
Since 1980, USGS has modified its policy on marking several times, often in response to accidents involving cableways. In each case, however, it adopted Federal Aviation Administration standards for marking obstructions to airspace. The FAA regs required marking of objects more than 200 feet above the ground (“AGL”), and suggested that marking of cableways should be considered if they are hazardous to low-flying aircraft. USGS District offices were directed “to review all… cableway installations and decide which may be hazardous to low-flying aircraft,” and to develop “[a] plan… to install markers on those cableways designated as potentially hazardous.”
After an aircraft struck an unmarked cableway in 1995, USGS considered “a broad policy to require the marking of all cableways,” but ultimately decided against it after consulting with an FAA Air Specialist, who reviewed photographs and aeronautical charts for a subset of cableways and recommended against marking them because none met the FAA criteria for marking obstructions. The expert recommended against marking any USGS cableways that did not meet the FAA criteria.
USGS later issued Memorandum No. 2000.13, which recognized that “Congress has charged the FAA with the responsibility to promote the safety of aircraft and the efficient use of navigable airspace,” and repeated USGS’s policy that structures over 200 feet AGL “should normally be marked,” but specified nothing for cableways under 200 feet AGL. In 2008, USGS issued a policy manual — Survey Manual, No. SM 445-2-H (the “2008 Survey Manual’’) — that was functionally the same as the 2000 Memorandum. The 2008 Survey Manual repeated that it was USGS policy to comply with the FAA’s obstruction marking regulations.
Even though the default policy was not to mark cableways under 200 feet, USGS also considered site-specific and other factors to determine whether to mark cableways that did not meet FAA criteria. The specific considerations relevant to the Verde River cableway included the absence of any prior accidents; the cost of installation; the physical risk to employees installing markers; the risk of confusion to pilots who expect to see markings at higher heights; the likelihood of vandalism by marksmen and accompanying economic and safety concerns; and the United States Forest Service’s scenic integrity objectives to “minimize or eliminate visual distractions” in the area given the Verde River’s designation as a “Wild and Scenic River.”
In June 2012, a helicopter flown by Raymond Perry crashed in the Prescott National Forest, killing Perry and his three passengers. The chopper struck the unmarked cableway suspended forty feet above the Verde River by USGS as part of its cableway. Although the cable was virtually invisible to aircraft pilots, USGS placed no markers or warning signs out because the unmarked cableway complied with the FAA obstruction regulations.
Following the accident, Perry’s estate sued, claiming that USGS was negligent for failing to mark the cable. The district court held that the decision not to mark the cable was a discretionary function of USGS, and thus exempt from the Federal tort Claim Act. It thus held it lacked subject matter jurisdiction and dismissed the lawsuit.
Perry’s estate appealed.
Held: USGS was exempt from liability because its decision not to mark the cableway was a discretionary function of the agency.
The FTCA waives the government’s sovereign immunity for tort claims arising out of negligent conduct of government employees and agencies acting within the scope of their duties, allowing a plaintiff to sue the government “under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred.” If there is no waiver of sovereign immunity through the FTCA, the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction and the case must be dismissed.
One exception to the broad waiver of sovereign immunity under the FTCA is called the discretionary function exception. That exception provides immunity from suit for any claim “…based upon the exercise or performance or the failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty on the part of a federal agency or an employee of the Government, whether or not the discretion involved be abused.” The purpose of the exception is to prevent “judicial ‘second guessing’ of legislative and administrative decisions grounded in social, economic, and political policy through the medium of an action in tort.”
There is a two-step process to determine applicability of the exception. First, a court must decide whether the act is “discretionary in nature,” which necessarily involves an element of judgment or choice. The “judgment or choice” requirement is not met where a “federal statute, regulation, or policy specifically prescribes a course of action for an employee to follow.” If a statute or policy directs mandatory and specific action, the inquiry comes to an end: there can be no element of discretion when an employee has no rightful option but to adhere to the directive.
If discretion is involved, then a court must consider whether the discretion “is of the kind that the discretionary function exception was designed to shield” — that is, governmental actions and decisions grounded in social, economic, and political policy. The focus is on whether the actions are “susceptible to a policy analysis,” not whether the government actually took such public policy judgments into consideration when making the decision.
No federal statute, regulation, or policy specifically prescribed the marking of the Verde River cableway. Instead, the decision whether to mark the cableway was a result of considered judgment and choice. The Verde River cableway fell within USGS’s default policy not to mark cableways that did not meet the FAA’s 200-feet AGL criteria. Nor did the cableway trigger any of the verification requirements set forth in the 2008 Survey Manual and 2000 Memorandum, which only applied to cableways exceeding 200 feet AGL that were not marked.
Thus, there was no mandatory directive within USGS’s policies to mark the cable. That USGS policy let its personnel consider s specific factors which necessarily varied by site “highlights that judgment was involved in the decision.” This is not an instance, the Court said, “in which USGS’s policy identified site-specific considerations that mandated marking. No such guidance was provided in any USGS policy, so USGS employees were left to exercise their judgment when deciding whether to mark a particular site.”
Although its policy directed personnel “to review” all cableways, “decide which may be hazardous,” and develop a plan to install markers at those sites, USGS’s language cannot be construed as a “mandatory and specific” directive to mark the Verde River cableway. Rather, the policy left employees with a discretionary choice about which cableways were hazardous and which should be marked.
What’s more, the Court held, USGS’s decision is susceptible to policy analysis grounded in social, economic, and political concerns. USGS’s decision to defer to the FAA as the agency charged with “the responsibility to promote the safety of aircraft and the efficient use of navigable airspace”’ is grounded in social, economic, and political policy. USGS recognized the FAA’s role and expertise in regulating navigable airspace and affirmatively decided to defer to the agency’s standards with respect to marking.
As well, USGS’s decision was susceptible to a number of additional social, economic, and political considerations. There were competing safety concerns, such as the risk of confusing pilots “who expect to see obstruction markers only at higher levels,” and the risk to USGS personnel tasked with installation or maintenance of the markers. Economic factors were also considered, such as the cost of installation and maintenance of the markers, particularly given the likelihood of vandalism. USGS also knew of USFS’s objective to minimize visual distractions to meet “scenic integrity objectives” given the Verde River’s designation as a “Wild and Scenic River’ and bald eagle nesting area.
“All of these considerations,” the Court ruled, “embody the type of policy concerns that the discretionary function exception is designed to protect, reflecting that USGS’s decision was based on competing policy considerations related to safety to aircraft, safety to USGS personnel, financial burden, protection of scenic integrity, and respect to the objectives of land-management agencies.”
The Court refused Perry’s argument that the government ought not to be allowed to invoke the discretionary function exception whenever a decision involves considerations of public safety. Such a “sweeping exemption would severely undermine the discretionary function exception and is unsupported by our precedent,” the Court held. “In case after case, we have considered the government’s balancing of public safety with a multitude of other factors.” Here, USGS’s decision not to mark the cableway was “actually susceptible to policy analysis, including deference to another agency’s expertise, competing safety interests, financial burden, and the effect on scenic integrity.”
The Court warned that its “invocation of the discretionary function doctrine in cases involving public safety should not be read as giving the government a pass every time it raises the exception. We emphasize that the government bears the burden of sustaining the discretionary function exception and that the record must bear the weight of that burden.”
– Tom Root