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Tuggles v. United States

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

February 27, 2019




         Plaintiff initiated this action against the government of the United States (“Defendant” or the “Government”) alleging seven tort claims, pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”). (ECF No. 1.) Before the Court is Defendant's Motion to Dismiss or in the Alternative Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 5.) For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff is an honorably discharged veteran of the United States Army residing in Wake County, North Carolina. (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 11, 18.) After completing an appointment at the Veteran Affairs Medical Center (“VAMC”) in Durham, North Carolina, on November 17, 2014, Plaintiff “went to the travel pay booths [located in the VAMC] in order to obtain reimbursement for the travel expenses for which he was eligible.” (Id. ¶¶ 19, 22-23.) Plaintiff sought to “receive his reimbursement as a cash voucher rather than having the reimbursement deposited to his bank account.” (Id. ¶ 24.) While Plaintiff attempted to explain his reasons for requesting such a voucher, “a uniformed security guard requested that Plaintiff step out of the administrator's office.” (Id. ¶ 26.) Plaintiff next alleges that “other uniformed officers came upon the scene, and they laid their hands upon Plaintiff, and, after grabbing Plaintiff about his body, they threw him to [the] floor, where they proceeded to hit him about his neck, back, and kidneys.” (Id. ¶ 27.) Plaintiff alleges that he was then arrested for causing a disturbance and later released without any charges filed. (Id. ¶ 28.)

         On or about October 29, 2015, Plaintiff submitted a claim for damages to the Department of Veteran Affairs (the “Department” or “VA”) regarding the above events. (Id. ¶ 3; ECF No. 1-1.) After the Department denied Plaintiff's claim, (ECF No. 1-2), Plaintiff requested reconsideration of his claim on or about March 2, 2016, (ECF No. 1-3). On or about October 12, 2017, the Department notified Plaintiff that it had completed its reconsideration and that his claim was denied. (ECF No. 1-5; ECF No. 1 ¶ 7.) Plaintiff then filed this complaint, alleging seven causes of action: (1) negligence, (2) negligent infliction of emotional distress (“NIED”), (3) intentional infliction of emotional distress (“IIED”), (4) false arrest, (5) false imprisonment, (6) assault and battery, and (7) unlawful deprivation and denial of constitutional rights. (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 29-63.)

         Defendant now moves to dismiss this complaint pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, or, in the alternative, for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56. (ECF No. 5.)


         A. Rule 12(b)(1)

         Under Rule 12(b)(1), a party may seek dismissal based on the court's “lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). Subject matter jurisdiction is a threshold issue that relates to the court's power to hear a case and must be decided before a determination on the merits of the case. Constantine v. Rectors & Visitors of George Mason Univ., 411 F.3d 474, 479- 80 (4th Cir. 2005). A motion under Rule 12(b)(1) raises the question of “whether [the plaintiff] has a right to be in the district court at all and whether the court has the power to hear and dispose of [the] claim.” Holloway v. Pagan River Dockside Seafood, Inc., 669 F.3d 448, 452 (4th Cir. 2012). The burden of proving subject matter jurisdiction rests with the plaintiff. Adams v. Bain, 697 F.2d 1213, 1219 (4th Cir. 1982). When evaluating a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss, the court should grant the motion “only if the material jurisdictional facts are not in dispute and the moving party is entitled to prevail as a matter of law.” Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac R.R. Co. v. United States, 945 F.2d 765, 768 (4th Cir. 1991).

         B. Rule 12(b)(6)

         A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure “challenges the legal sufficiency of a complaint, ” including whether it meets the pleading standard of Rule 8(a)(2). Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 192 (4th Cir. 2009). Rule 8(a)(2) requires a complaint to contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), thereby “giv[ing] the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (citation omitted). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). A complaint may fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted in two ways: first, by failing to state a valid legal cause of action, i.e., a cognizable claim, see Holloway, 669 F.3d at 452; or second, by failing to allege sufficient facts to support a legal cause of action, see Painter's Mill Grille, LLC v. Brown, 716 F.3d 342, 350 (4th Cir. 2013).

         C. Rule 56

         Summary judgment is appropriate when “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A dispute is “genuine” if the evidence would permit a reasonable jury to find for the nonmoving party, and “[a] fact is material if it might affect the outcome” of the litigation. Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of the Courts, 780 F.3d 562, 568 (4th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted). The role of the court is not “to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter, ” but rather “to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). When reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court must “resolve all factual disputes and any competing, rational inferences in the light most favorable” to the nonmoving party. Rossignol v. Voorhaar, 316 F.3d 516, 523 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting Wightman v. Springfield Terminal Ry. Co., 100 F.3d 228, 230 (1st Cir. 1996)).


         Defendant sets forth multiple arguments as bases for dismissal of Plaintiff's claims to include: (1) that Plaintiff did not adequately exhaust his administrative remedies before filing this action, as required by the FTCA, (ECF No. 6 at 6-7; ECF No. 19 at 1-4); (2) that Plaintiff's constitutional tort claim is not cognizable under the FTCA, (ECF No. 6 at 19-21); and (3) that Plaintiff has failed to state a claim under which relief may be granted for the remaining claims. (Id. at 10-19.) Defendant also moves for summary judgment, in the alternative, as to all of Plaintiff's claims. (ECF No. 5 at 1.)

         A. Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

         As a general principle, the United States has sovereign immunity from common law actions seeking damages. Perkins v. United States, 55 F.3d 910, 913 (4th Cir. 1995). The FTCA acts as a limited waiver of that immunity, giving federal district courts jurisdiction to “hear civil actions against the United States for money damages for injuries caused by the negligent or wrongful acts or omissions of government employees while acting within the scope of their employment.” Id. The FTCA's waiver of immunity is to be “strictly construed” with “all ambiguities . . . resolved in favor of the United States.” Williams v. United States, 50 F.3d 299, 305 (4th Cir. 1995). This waiver, however, is subject to certain exceptions and prerequisites. Perkins, 55 F.3d at 913. One such prerequisite is that the claimant must first “present[ ] the claim to the appropriate Federal agency and [have] his claim . . . [be] finally denied by the agency” before filing suit in federal court. 28 U.S.C. § 2675(a).

         Federal regulations deem a claim “to have been presented when a Federal agency receives from a claimant . . . an executed Standard Form 95 [SF-95] or other written notification of an incident, accompanied by a claim for money damages in a sum certain.” 28 C.F.R. § 14.2(a). A claim is properly “presented” to an agency if it “(1) is sufficient to enable the agency to investigate and (2) places a ‘sum certain' value on [the] claim.” Ahmed v. United States, 30 F.3d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1994) (quoting Adkins v. United States, 896 F.2d 1324, 1326 (11th Cir. 1990)). “A notice is sufficient to cause investigation where the factual predicate permits an agency to ‘either reasonably assess its liability or competently defend itself.'” Wood v. United States, 209 F.Supp.3d 835, 840 (M.D. N.C. 2016) (quoting Drew v. United States, 217 F.3d 193, 197 (4th Cir. 2000), reh'g en banc granted, opinion vacated, aff'd by equally divided court without opinion, 231 F.3d 927 (4th Cir. 2000)); see also Boles v. United States, 3 F.Supp.3d 491, 504 (M.D. N.C. 2014) (explaining that a plaintiff's administrative claim properly presented a number of claims because it “identified the incident in which [the plaintiff] was injured and demanded a sum certain in damages”). A claimant does not, however, need to “give the government notice of every possible theory of recovery.” Degenhard v. United States, No. 5:13- CV-685-BR, 2015 WL 632211, at *1 (E.D. N.C. Feb. 13, 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Defendant argues that Plaintiff has failed to present all of his claims, except his assault and battery claim, to the Department before filing this action. (ECF No. 6 at 6-7.) Thus, according to Defendant, this Court does not have jurisdiction over such claims. (Id.) Plaintiff argues in response that his administrative claim addressed the “same set of operative facts” involved in his claims in this action and, therefore, sufficiently presented all seven claims to the Department. (ECF No. 18 at 4-5.)

         Plaintiff's SF-95 does not specifically name any legal cause of action. (See ECF No. 1-1.) Instead, it sets forth a brief narrative of the events which lead to his injuries, stating, in relevant part:

After my appt. [on November 17, 2014], I went to the travel desk to be reimbursed for my travel expenses (per my scheduled appt.) and I was inexplicably attacked by at least 5 uniformed security guards thereby exacerbating my left shoulder/arm condition. The next day, 11/18/2014, I was hospitalized at the Rex Hospital for a strain put on my shoulders, back, neck and displaced my hips all ...

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