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Vardiman v. United States

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

January 9, 2020

NORVETT VARDIMAN, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          RONNIE L. WHITE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant United States of America's ("Defendant USA") Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction. (ECF No. 24) The motion is fully briefed and ready for disposition. Upon thorough consideration of the motion and related memoranda and exhibits, the Court finds it lacks subject matter jurisdiction and will therefore grant Defendant USA's motion and dismiss the claims against Defendant USA set forth in Plaintiffs' Complaint.

         I. Background

         On September 1, 2017, Plaintiffs filed a Complaint in federal court, alleging Defendant Aaron Booker, Jr. ("Booker"), a United States Postal Service ("USPS") worker, caused a vehicle accident on March 29, 2016 while driving a USPS vehicle, injuring the driver, Plaintiff Norvett Vardiman, and her passengers, Plaintiffs Ronnie Gooch, Ania Warner, Michael Hudson, Dennis Royal-Reed, and Charles Singleton. (Compl. ¶¶ 11-16, ECF No. 1) Specifically, the record shows Booker was employed by the USPS as a City Carrier from March 9, 2013 through May 27, 2016. (Def.'s Ex. A, ECF No. 25-2) He was assigned to Postal Route 3941, which covered an area within and around an area known as the Hill neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri. (Def. Ex. B, ECF No. 25-3; Boyd-Garner Dep. 48:22-49:4, Def.'s Ex. N, ECF No. 25-15) The route was about a mile and a half from Booker's tour-of-duty station at the Southwest Station Post Office. (Booker Dep. 35:13-23, Def.'s Ex. O, ECF No. 25-16; Def.'s Ex. A) His shift began at 8:00 AM and finished at 4:30 PM. (Def.'s Ex. C, ECF No. 25-4)

         On March 29, 2016, between 4:20 and 4:30 PM, Plaintiffs were driving eastbound on Interstate 70 ("1-70") through downtown St. Louis, near the St. Louis Arch grounds. (Def.'s Ex. E, ECF No. 25-6) Their vehicle was struck by a USPS vehicle driven by Booker, who left the scene of the accident. Plaintiffs attempted to pursue the postal vehicle and were able to contact 911 and provide a photo of the vehicle's license number. (Def.'s Ex. E p. 5; Def.'s Ex. F, ECF No. 25-7)

         The Postal Handbook provides, "[d]o not deviate from your route for meals or other purposes unless authorized by your manager or if local policies concerning handling out of sequence mail permit minor deviations." (Def.'s Ex G p. 2 ¶ 131.31, ECF No. 25-8) Booker admitted no one is authorized to be outside their route during hours of the postal service. (Booker Dep. 41:24-25) He was not authorized to be downtown on 1-70 on the date of the accident. (Boyd-Garner Dep. 68:18-69:5) After being notified of the incident, Booker's Station Manager, Karen Boyd-Garner, began an investigation which revealed black scuff marks and dents on the postal vehicle. (Boyd-Garner Dep. 12:19-13-10; Def.'s Ex. H, ECF No. 25-9) When confronted about the incident the following day, Booker denied any involvement and claimed he was the victim of a hit and run on Hampton Avenue. (Def.'s Ex. I, ECF No. 25-10) During his deposition, Booker stated he was not driving at the time of the accident, but someone else could have used the vehicle. (Booker Dep. 41:8-19)

         The vehicle utilization report for Booker's vehicle on the date in question indicated he deviated 34 miles off his route. (Def.'s Ex. J, ECF No. 25-11) An activity report for Booker's March 29 route showed he made a scan at 14:56 PM and no other scan until his last delivery at 16:40 PM. He returned to the office at 16:49 PM. (Def.'s Ex. K, ECF No. 25-12) Ms. Boyd-Garner surmised Booker removed the battery from his scanner during this hour and fifteen minute time period of no activity. (Id. at p. 4) Pursuant to the internal investigation, Booker was placed on off-duty status and ultimately removed from employment on May 27, 2016. (Def.'s Ex. L, ECF No. 25-13; Def.'s Ex. M, ECF No. 25-14)

         In Plaintiffs Complaint, they bring claims against Defendant USA pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA"), 28 U.S.C. §§ 2671, et seq. Plaintiffs previously submitted administrative tort claims against Defendant USA, but the claims were denied on the grounds that Booker was not acting within the scope of his employment. Thereafter, Plaintiffs filed their Complaint in federal court, alleging Defendant USA is liable for the acts of Booker under the theory of respondeat superior because he was acting within the scope of his employment duties at the time of the collision (Counts I, V, IX, XIII, XVII, and XXI). Plaintiffs further allege Defendant USA negligently hired/trained Booker (Counts II, VI, X, XIV, XVIII, and XXII). Finally, Plaintiffs contend Defendant USA negligently supervised/retained Booker as an employee (Counts III, VII, XI, XV, XIX, and XXIII).

         On August 29, 2019, Defendant USA filed the instant motion to dismiss, asserting the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction because Booker was not acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the vehicle accident. Plaintiff responds Booker was acting in the course and scope of his employment when he crashed his USPS vehicle into Plaintiffs' vehicle. Defendant USA further asserts it is entitled to the discretionary function exception under the FTCA. Plaintiffs deny the discretionary function exception applies because Booker was allegedly driving while on a suspended license at the time of the accident.

         II. Legal Standard

         "Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. The requirement that jurisdiction be established as a threshold matter springs from the nature and limits of the judicial power of the United States and is inflexible and without exception." Godfrey v. Pulitzer Pub. Co., 161 F.3d 1137, 1141 (8th Cir. 1998) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). "The purpose of a Rule 12(b)(1) motion is to allow the court to address the threshold question of jurisdiction, as 'judicial economy demands that the issue be decided at the outset rather than deferring it until trial.'" B.A. v. Missouri, No. 2:16 CV 72 CDP, 2017 WL 106433, at *1 (E.D. Mo. Jan. 11, 2017) (quoting Osborn v. United States, 918 F.2d 724, 729 (8th Cir. 1990)). To dismiss a complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), '"the complaint must be successfully challenged on its face or on the factual truthfulness of its averments.'" Swiish v.' Nixon, No. 4:14-CV-2089 CAS, 2015 WL 867650, at *2 (E.D. Mo. Feb. 27, 2015) (quoting Titus v. Sullivan, 4 F.3d 590, 593 (8th Cir. 1993)). "Where, as here, a party brings a factual attack, a district court may look outside the pleadings to affidavits or other documents." Moss v. United States, 895 F.3d 1091, 1097 (8th Cir. 2018) (citation omitted). Further, in a factual attack "the party invoking federal jurisdiction must prove jurisdictional facts by a preponderance of the evidence." Id.

         The United States is immune from a law suit unless it consents. Riley v. United States, 486 F.3d 1030, 1032 (8th Cir. 2007). However, Congress waived this sovereign immunity '"by enacting the FTCA, under which the federal government is liable for certain torts its agents commit in the course of their employment.'" 7d. (quoting C.R. S. by D.B.S. v. United States, 11 F.3d 791, 795 (8th Cir.1993)). "The FTCA serves as a limited waiver of sovereign immunity, opening the door to state-law liability claims against the federal government for harm caused by government employees." Buckler v. United States, 919 F.3d 1038, 1044 (8th Cir. 2019). The FTCA "waives sovereign immunity in two different sections of the United States Code. The first confers federal-court jurisdiction in a defined category of cases involving negligence committed by federal employees in the course of their employment." Dolan v. U.S. Postal Serv., 546 U.S. 481, 484 (2006); see also 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1). The second waiver makes the United States liable "in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances, but [ ] not [ ] for interest prior to judgment or for punitive damages." 28 U.S.C. § 2674; Dolan, 546 U.S. at 485.

         The FTCA also exempts certain categories of claims set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 2680 such that the bar of sovereign immunity remains. Dolan, 546 U.S. at 485. Applicable to this case, the discretionary function exception in 28 U.S.C. § 2680(a) places a statutory limitation on this waiver by precluding "suit against the government for harm caused by a government employee's acts if those acts are subject to discretion that is 'grounded in social, economic, and political policy.'" Buckler, 919 F.3d at 1044 (quoting Herden v. United States, 726 F.3d 1042, 1047 (8th Cir. 2013)). "A waiver of sovereign immunity is strictly construed in favor of the United States, and the party bringing suit bears the burden of demonstrating waiver." May v. United States, No. 17-04157-NKL, 2017 WL 6419298, at *2 (W.D. Mo. Dec. 15, 2017) (citations omitted).

         III. ...


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