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Will v. Hallock

Public Citizen represented Susan Hallock and her defunct business, Ferncliff Associates, in a lawsuit against individual U.S. Customs Service agents for their deliberate destruction of computer equipment and the subsequent loss of her business. Her husband, Richard Hallock, had been the victim of identity theft: Unknown to him, his credit card information was used to pay the subscription fee for a website that displayed child pornography. Agents of the Customs Service obtained a warrant and seized the computer equipment. When the equipment was returned to the Hallocks months later, the hard drives of several had been irreparably damaged. As a result, Ferncliff Associates, a computer software business, was forced to go out of business.

Susan Hallock and her business initially brought suit against the government under the Federal Tort Claims Act, but that suit was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction because of an exemption within the statute that made the FTCA inapplicable. Hallock then filed a new case against the individual Customs Service agents for intentional violation of constitutional rights—claims not based on the FTCA. In light of the earlier dismissal of the FTCA claim, however, the government argued that her new claims should be dismissed. The government relied on a provision in the FTCA that provides that a “judgment in an action under [the FTCA] shall constitute a complete bar to any action by the claimant, by reason of the same subject matter, against the employee of the government whose act or omission gave rise to the claim.” The district court denied the motion, and when the government appealed, the Second Circuit affirmed.

The government sought review in the Supreme Court, where Public Citizen served as counsel for Hallock. The questions before the Court were whether the court of appeals had appellate jurisdiction over the interlocutory appeal of a district court’s order denying a motion to dismiss based on the FTCA judgment bar, and whether that provision barred the claims against the individuals. On the first question, the Court agreed with our position and held, 9-0, that the appellate court had lacked jurisdiction to hear the case. The Court therefore did not reach the second question. Because Hallock had prevailed below, this outcome preserved her lower court victory and allowed her to continue litigating the case.