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Sledge v. Federal Bureau of Prisons

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

December 13, 2013

Dianne D. Sledge, Co-Personal Representative of the Estate of Rico Woodland, et al., Appellants
v.
Federal Bureau of Prisons, Appellee

Argued October 11, 2013.

Reissued January 15, 2014.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 1:06-cv-00742).

Stephen V. Carey argued the cause for appellants. With him on the briefs were David P. Donovan and Philip R. Seybold.

Heather Graham-Oliver, Assistant U.S. Attorney, argued the cause for appellee. With her on the brief were Ronald C. Machen, Jr., U.S. Attorney, and R. Craig Lawrence and Michelle Lo, Assistant U.S. Attorneys.

Before: Kavanaugh, Circuit Judge, and Sentelle and Randolph, Senior Circuit Judges.

OPINION

RANDOLPH, Senior Circuit Judge.

I

Randolph, Senior Circuit Judge: This case arises from an altercation between Rico Woodland, an inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution in Allenwood, Pennsylvania, and a fellow inmate, Jesse Sparks. At 12:37 p.m. on October 15, 2002, Woodland and Sparks entered their cell. The two began to fight and were initially evenly matched, but Woodland became unable to defend himself (possibly because of an asthma attack).[1]Woodland was discovered at 1:05 p.m. with severe injuries, and was taken to a nearby hospital. He remained in a coma for several months, suffered brain damage, lost the use of his limbs, and eventually passed away on January 29, 2006.

Officer Richard Sweithelm was the corrections officer assigned to Woodland's housing unit on the afternoon of the assault. Officer Sweithelm assumed his post at about noon. At 12:37 p.m., just before Woodland and Sparks began their fight, Officer Sweithelm left the housing unit, and the prison began a "controlled movement." Controlled movements are regular ten-minute periods during which inmates can move from one part of the institution to another (for example, from housing units to a recreation facility or the dining hall). Officer Sweithelm remained outside the housing unit throughout this controlled movement. He smoked a cigarette, chatted with a fellow corrections officer, and watched inmate traffic entering and leaving the housing unit. He did not go back inside until 12:48 p.m., after the controlled movement was complete.

Woodland, and later his family and estate, claimed that the government was liable for Woodland's injuries because Officer Sweithelm acted negligently by standing outside and failing to monitor the interior of the housing unit during the assault. After exhausting administrative remedies, Teresa Sledge, the personal representative of Woodland's estate, sued the government in the district court.[2] Invoking the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 2671-2680, Sledge argued that the government was liable for personal injury and wrongful death under Pennsylvania law.[3]

The government moved to dismiss the complaint. It argued that Officer Sweithelm's conduct was protected by the discretionary function exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2680(a), and that Sledge's claims were therefore outside the district court's subject-matter jurisdiction. The district court granted Sledge limited jurisdictional discovery and, after a hearing, dismissed the complaint. The opinion of the district court is reported at Sledge v. United States, 883 F.Supp.2d 71 (D.D.C. 2012). Sledge timely appealed.

II.

The Federal Tort Claims Act grants district courts exclusive jurisdiction to hear certain tort claims against the United States, including claims for "personal injury or death" based on the "negligent or wrongful act[s] or omission[s]" of government employees on the job. 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1); see id. § 2674. The Act's broad jurisdictional grant is subject to exceptions. See id. ยง 2680. Among those, the discretionary function exception bars courts from hearing claims "based upon the exercise . . . or the failure to exercise . . . a ...


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