ArtIII.S2.C1.4.4.4 Suits Against United States Officials

Article III, Section 2, Clause 1:

The Judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;—to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;—to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction; to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;—to Controversies between two or more States; between a State and Citizens of another State; between Citizens of different States,—between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.

United States v. Lee, a 5-to-4 decision, qualified earlier holdings that a judgment affecting the property of the United States was in effect against the United States, by ruling that title to the Arlington estate of the Lee family, then being used as a national cemetery, was not legally vested in the United States but was being held illegally by army officers under an unlawful order of the President. In its examination of the sources and application of the rule of sovereign immunity, the Court concluded that the rule "if not absolutely limited to cases in which the United States are made defendants by name, is not permitted to interfere with the judicial enforcement of the rights of plaintiff when the United States is not a defendant or a necessary party to the suit." 1 Except, nevertheless, for an occasional case like Kansas v. United States, 2 which held that a state cannot sue the United States, most of the cases involving sovereign immunity from suit since 1883 have been cases against officers, agencies, or corporations of the United States where the United States has not been named as a party defendant. Thus, it has been held that a suit against the Secretary of the Treasury to review his decision on the rate of duty to be exacted on imported sugar would disturb the whole revenue system of the government and would in effect be a suit against the United States. 3 Even more significant is Stanley v. Schwalby, 4 holding that an action of trespass against an army officer to try title in a parcel of land occupied by the United States as a military reservation was a suit against the United States because a judgment in favor of the plaintiffs would have been a judgment against the United States.

Subsequent cases reaffirm the rule of United States v. Lee that, where the right to possession or enjoyment of property under general law is in issue, the fact that defendants claim the property as officers or agents of the United States does not make the action one against the United States until it is determined that they were acting within the scope of their lawful authority. 5 On the other hand, the rule that a suit in which the judgment would affect the United States or its property is a suit against the United States has also been repeatedly approved and reaffirmed. 6 But, as the Court has pointed out, it is not "an easy matter to reconcile all of the decisions of the court in this class of cases," 7 and, as Justice Frankfurter quite justifiably stated in a dissent, "the subject is not free from casuistry." 8 Justice Douglas' characterization of Land v. Dollar, "this is the type of case where the question of jurisdiction is dependent on decision of the merits," 9 is frequently applicable.

Larson v. Domestic & Foreign Corp., 10 illuminates these obscurities somewhat. A private company sought to enjoin the Administrator of the War Assets in his official capacity from selling surplus coal to others than the plaintiff who had originally bought the coal, only to have the sale cancelled by the Administrator because of the company's failure to make an advance payment. Chief Justice Vinson and a majority of the Court looked upon the suit as one brought against the Administrator in his official capacity, acting under a valid statute and therefore a suit against the United States. It held that, although an officer in such a situation is not immune from suits for his own torts, his official action, though tortious, cannot be enjoined or diverted, because it is also the action of the sovereign. 11 The Court then proceeded to repeat the rule that "the action of an officer of the sovereign (be it holding, taking, or otherwise legally affecting the plaintiff’s property) can be regarded as so individual only if it is not within the officer’s statutory powers, or, if within those powers, only if the powers or their exercise in the particular case, are constitutionally void." 12 The Court rejected the contention that the doctrine of sovereign immunity should be relaxed as inapplicable to suits for specific relief as distinguished from damage suits, saying: "The Government, as representative of the community as a whole, cannot be stopped in its tracks by any plaintiff who presents a disputed question of property or contract right." 13

Suits against officers involving the doctrine of sovereign immunity have been classified into four general groups by Justice Frankfurter. First, there are those cases in which the plaintiff seeks an interest in property which belongs to the government or calls "for an assertion of what is unquestionably official authority." 14 Such suits, of course, cannot be maintained. 15 Second, cases in which action adverse to the interests of a plaintiff is taken under an unconstitutional statute or one alleged to be so. In general these suits are maintainable. 16 Third, cases involving injury to a plaintiff because the official has exceeded his statutory authority. In general these suits are maintainable. 17 Fourth, cases in which an officer seeks immunity behind statutory authority or some other sovereign command for the commission of a common law tort. 18 This category of cases presents the greatest difficulties because these suits can as readily be classified as falling into the first group if the action directly or indirectly is one for specific performance or if the judgment would affect the United States.

Footnotes

  1.  United States v. Lee, 106 U.S. 196, 207-208 (1882). The Tucker Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(2), now displaces the specific rule of the case, as it provides jurisdiction against the United States for takings claims.
  2.  204 U.S. 331 (1907).
  3.  Louisiana v. McAdoo, 234 U.S. 627, 628 (1914).
  4.  162 U.S. 255 (1896). Justice Gray endeavored to distinguish between this case and Lee. Id. at 271. It was Justice Gray who spoke for the dissenters in Lee.
  5.  Land v. Dollar, 330 U.S. 731, 737 (1947).
  6.  Oregon v. Hitchcock, 202 U.S. 60 (1906); Louisiana v. Garfield, 211 U.S. 70 (1908); New Mexico v. Lane, 243 U.S. 52 (1917); Wells v. Roper, 246 U.S. 335 (1918); Morrison v. Work, 266 U.S. 481 (1925); Minnesota v. United States, 305 U.S.. 382 (1939); Mine Safety Co. v. Forrestal, 326 U.S. 371 (1945). See also Minnesota v. Hitchcock, 185 U.S. 373 (1902).
  7.  Cunningham v. Macon & Brunswick R.R., 109 U.S. 446, 451 (1883), quoted by Chief Justice Vinson in the opinion of the Court in Larson v. Domestic & Foreign Commerce Corp., 337 U.S. 682 (1949).
  8.  Larson, 337 U.S. at 708. Justice Frankfurter's dissent also contains a useful classification of immunity cases and an appendix listing them.
  9.  330 U.S. 731, 735 (1947) (emphasis added).
  10.  337 U.S. 682 (1949).
  11.  337 U.S. at 689-97.
  12.  337 U.S. at 701-02. This rule was applied in Goldberg v. Daniels, 231 U.S. 218 (1913), which also involved a sale of government surplus property. After the Secretary of the Navy rejected the highest bid, plaintiff sought mandamus to compel delivery. This suit was held to be against the United States. See also Perkins v. Lukens Steel Co., 310 U.S. 113 (1940), which held that prospective bidders for contracts derive no enforceable rights against a federal official for an alleged misinterpretation of his government's authority on the ground that an agent is answerable only to his principal for misconstruction of instructions, given for the sole benefit of the principal. In Larson, the Court not only refused to follow Goltra v. Weeks, 271 U.S. 536 (1926), but in effect overruled it. Goltra involved an attempt of the government to repossess barges which it had leased under a contract reserving the right to repossess in certain circumstances. A suit to enjoin repossession was held not to be a suit against the United States on the ground that the actions were personal and in the nature of a trespass. Also decided in harmony with the Larson decision are the following, wherein the suit was barred as being against the United States: (1) Malone v. Bowdoin, 369 U.S. 643 (1962), a suit to eject a Forest Service Officer from land occupied by him in his official capacity under a claim of title from the United States; and (2) Hawaii v. Gordon, 373 U.S. 57 (1963), an original action by Hawaii against the Director of the Budget for an order directing him to determine whether a parcel of federal land could be conveyed to that state. In Dugan v. Rank, 372 U.S. 609 (1963), the Court ruled that inasmuch as the storing and diverting of water at the Friant Dam resulted, not in a trespass, but in a partial, although a casual day-by-day, taking of water rights of claimants along the San Joaquin River below the dam, a suit to enjoin such diversion by Federal Bureau of Reclamation officers was an action against the United States, for grant of the remedy sought would force abandonment of a portion of a project authorized and financed by Congress, and would prevent fulfillment of contracts between the United States and local Water Utility Districts. Damages were recoverable in a suit under the Tucker Act. 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a).
  13.  337 U.S. at 703-04. Justice Frankfurter, dissenting, would have applied the rule of the Lee case. See Pub. L. No. 94-574, 1, 90 Stat. 2721 (1976), amending 5 U.S.C. § 702 (action seeking relief, except for money damages, against officer, employee, or agency not to be dismissed as action against United States).
  14.  Larson v. Domestic & Foreign Corp., 337 U.S. 682, 709-710 (1949) (dissenting opinion).
  15.  Oregon v. Hitchcock, 202 U.S. 60 (1906); Louisiana v. McAdoo, 234 U.S. 627 (1914); Wells v. Roper, 246 U.S. 335 (1918). See also Belknap v. Schild, 161 U.S. 10 (1896); International Postal Supply Co. v. Bruce, 194 U.S. 601 (1904).
  16.  Rickert Rice Mills v. Fontenot, 297 U.S. 110 (1936); Tennessee Electric Power Co. v. TVA, 306 U.S. 118 (1939) (holding that one threatened with direct and special injury by the act of an agent of the government under a statute may challenge the constitutionality of the statute in a suit against the agent).
  17.  Philadelphia Co. v. Stimson, 223 U.S. 605 (1912); Waite v. Macy, 246 U.S. 606 (1918).
  18.  United States v. Lee, 106 U.S. 196 (1882); Goltra v. Weeks, 271 U.S. 536 (1926); Ickes v. Fox, 300 U.S. 82 (1937); Land v. Dollar, 330 U.S. 731 (1947). See also Barr v. Matteo, 360 U.S. 564 (1959); Howard v. Lyons, 360 U.S. 593 (1959). Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478 (1978); Carlson v. Green, 446 U.S. 14 (1980); Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982).