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Ronald Lee Glade, A Disabled Person, By Dick Lundskow v. United States of America

August 22, 2012


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 10 C 3942--James B. Zagel, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Posner, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED JULY 11, 2012

Before POSNER, MANION, and TINDER, Circuit Judges.

This suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act was dismissed on the pleadings. So we take as true the allegations of the complaint, according to which the plaintiff is a resident of southern Wisconsin and a 64-year-old Navy veteran discharged at the age of 18 or 19, soon after joining the Navy, because of mental illness from which he continues to suffer. Sexually abused by his parents and others as a child, he has long suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disor- der, and bipolar disorder. He may also be schizophrenic; he "has multiple daily episodes where he experiences separation of himself in different personalities and loses contact with reality." He has received intensive inpatient and outpatient psychiatric treatment over the last 23 years from employees of the Veterans Ad- ministration.

Beginning late in 2007 a therapist employed at a VA medical center in Chicago but working out of a satellite VA office in Wisconsin and assigned to treat the plaintiff began a sexual relationship with him. He didn't want to have sex with her but she convinced him that it was a necessary part of her treatment of his mental illnesses. The sex acts apparently all occurred in Wisconsin, either in her home or in the satellite VA office. In 2008 the plaintiff complained to his psycho- logist about the therapist and the VA conducted an in- vestigation that resulted in her admitting the sexual relationship. The complaint alleges that the relation- ship inflicted emotional distress on the plaintiff and made his mental illnesses worse.

The Federal Tort Claims Act makes the federal govern- ment liable for acts or omissions by its employees that would be torts in the state in which they occurred had they been committed by someone other than a federal employee. 28 U.S.C. § 2674. But there are excep- tions, including one for claims "arising out of . . . battery," id., § 2680(h), which the parties agree is the tort com- mitted by the therapist. (Sexual battery by deception is a common form of battery by medical personnel. Robert I. Simon, Clinical Psychiatry and the Law, 417, 430 (2d ed. 1992) (tab. 17-7); Kenneth S. Pope & Jacqueline C. Bouhoutsos, Sexual Intimacy Between Therapists and Patients 6-8 (1986); John F. Decker & Peter G. Baroni, "'No' Still Means 'Yes': The Failure of the 'Non-Consent' Reform Movement in American Rape and Sexual Assault Law," 101 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 1081, 1135 n. 365 (2011); AMA Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs, "Sexual Misconduct in the Practice of Medicine," 266 JAMA 2741, 2741-42 (1991).) But the therapist is not a de- fendant; the Act governs suits not against federal em- ployees but against their employer, the federal govern- ment. Therefore the exception for certain torts precludes imposing liability on the government for those torts under the doctrine of respondeat superior; otherwise the exception would be empty. LM ex rel. KM v. United States, 344 F.3d 695, 700 (7th Cir. 2003); Doe v. United States, 838 F.2d 220, 223 (7th Cir. 1988); Kearney v. United States, 815 F.2d 535, 537 (9th Cir. 1987).

The plaintiff seeks to elude the exception by pointing out that his suit charges not battery by the therapist but negligence by her supervisors in failing to detect and prevent her sexual battery of him. Respondeat superior makes an employer liable for torts committed by its employees within the scope of their employment even if the employer was not negligent in hiring, training, monitoring, or retaining the employee who committed a tort for which the employer has been sued. But if there was negligence by the employer, and not just by the employee who was the immediate author of the injury--negligence in hiring or retaining or supervising that employee--the plaintiff has an independent negli- gence claim (as distinct from a claim based on respondeat superior) against the employer. See Sheridan v. United States, 487 U.S. 392, 401-03 (1988); West v. Waymire, 114 F.3d 646, 649 (7th Cir. 1997). Respondeat superior liability is derivative ("vicarious"); liability for an em- ployer's negligence is direct.

The plaintiff's theory of liability is not, however, a conventional negligent-employer theory, which might for example support a claim that the therapist's super- visors knew or should have known that she had a pro- clivity for improper sexual relationships with patients yet did nothing to prevent or stop them. (Whether such a claim is possible under the Tort Claims Act is actually a contested issue, which we discuss briefly at the end of this opinion.) His theory rather is that the Veterans Administration had a "special relationship" with him that created a duty, independent of an em- ployer's normal duty to screen and supervise its employees carefully, to use due care to protect him from being injured by VA medical personnel.

The term "special relationship" is lamentably vague. Paine v. Cason, 678 F.3d 500, 510 (7th Cir. 2012). What is intended to be conveyed by the term is a relation that creates a duty of care. There is no tort of negligence without a breach of a duty owed the victim by the tortfea- sor. The duty of care to a stranger is generally limited to avoiding negligently injuring him, however, and thus does not include a duty of protection, prevention, or rescue. If you are sitting on a beach and see a person struggling in the water and you're a strong swimmer and could save him but you do nothing and he drowns, you bear no tort liability for his death. W. Page Keeton et al., Prosser & Keeton on the Law of Torts § 56, p. 375 (5th ed. 1984). But it would be different if you had invited him to go sailing with you and he fell off the boat and you refused to toss him a life jacket; having placed him in a situation of potential danger you are held to have assumed a duty to take reasonable care for his safety. Id. at 376; see Paine v. Cason, supra, 678 F.3d at 510-11. Even if in our first example you attempted to rescue the person (though you had no duty to do so) but were careless and as a result he drowned, you would be liable, on the theory that had you not inter- vened incompetently someone else might have rescued the person. Keeton et al., supra, § 56, p. 378.

Similarly a prison has a duty to its inmates to protect them against violence by other inmates because by im- prisoning a person it has blocked his access to forms of self-protection and police protection that he would have on the outside. Id. at 383-84; Restatement (Second) of Torts § 320, comment b (1965). The plaintiff argues that his many years of inpatient and outpatient treatment by the VA made the agency responsible for protecting him from misconduct by its employees and therefore liable to him if he was injured as a result of the agency's failure to discharge its responsibility.

The government makes several counterarguments. One, which the district court accepted and is the ground on which it dismissed the suit, is that the administrative claim that the plaintiff was required to file with the Veterans Administration as a condition precedent to suing the VA under the Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2675(a), does not mention a failure of anyone to use due care besides the therapist, and therefore the plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. Reading the administrative claim you would think the plaintiff was just seeking damages under a theory of respondeat superior against an employer for an employee's battery, and we know that such a theory won't fly under the Tort Claims Act.

The plaintiff argues that anyone in the VA's legal de- partment reading the claim should have realized that precisely because respondeat superior is not available when a complaint alleges only a tort for which the Tort Claims Act does not provide a remedy, he must have been seeking to fasten a different tort on the employer. But the different tort would have to be based on factual allegations beyond just the allegation of sexual misconduct by an employee, and there are no other allegations. The administrative claim need not set forth a legal theory, but it must allege facts that would clue a legally trained reader to the theory's applicability.

Palay v. United States, 349 F.3d 418, 425-26 (7th Cir. 2003); Murrey v. United States, 73 F.3d 1448, 1452-53 (7th Cir. 1996). The plaintiff's claim didn't do that. The legally trained reader would assume that the plaintiff simply was unaware that the mere fact of a battery by a VA employee would not impose liability on the em- ployer. We're about to see that the "special relationship" tort theory advanced in the plaintiff's complaint (as distinct from the administrative claim) is outside the bounds of plausibility--hardly the sort of theory that the VA's legal department should have guessed would be the ground of a lawsuit.

So the plaintiff did fail to exhaust his administra- tive remedies, as the district court held, and this alone should bar his suit, since the Tort Claims Act requires exhaustion of administrative remedies as a prerequisite to suit. 28 U.S.C. § 2675(a). In Parrott v. United States, 536 F.3d 629, 634 (7th Cir. 2008), however, and the fol- lowing year in Collins v. United States, 564 F.3d 833, 838 (7th Cir. 2009), we explained that the Act's requirement of exhausting administrative remedies is not jurisdic- tional, the Supreme Court having made clear recently that the term "subject-matter jurisdiction" is "reserved 'for prescriptions delineating the classes of cases . . . within a court's adjudicatory authority.' Kontrick v. Ryan, 540 U.S. 443, 455 (2004).... Thus 'to say that Congress has authorized the federal courts to decide a class of disputes is to say that subject-matter jurisdiction is pres- ent.' United States v. T & W Edmier Corp., 465 F.3d 764, 765 (7th Cir. 2006). Obviously the federal courts are authorized to decide suits under the Federal Tort Claims Act; indeed, no other court system is. 28 U.S.C. § 1346 (b)(1)." Kontrick supersedes opinions that term the ...

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