S.Ct.: Statute uses “Claim” and “Cause of Action” to refer only to Facts, Not Relief

The Supreme Court dismissed a claim by the Tohono O’Odham nation in the Court of Federal Claims (CFC) for lack of jurisdiction. The Court held that 28 U.S.C.A. § 1500 barred the CFC from taking jurisdiction over a lawsuit when the plaintiff is also pursuing a claim in another court with substantial overlap in the facts of both lawsuits, even though the two suits sought completely different remedies.

The Court concluded that the terms “claim” and “cause of action” in § 1500 referred only to the facts of the litigation, not the relief sought.US v. Tohono O’Odham Nation, 2011 WL 1543329 (April 26, 2011). Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion. Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Breyer, concurred in the judgment. Justice Ginsburg dissented. Justice Kagan was recused.

The Tohono O’Odham Nation filed two lawsuits based on the same allegations that federal officials managing tribal assets held in trust had violated their fiduciary duties to the tribe. They filed one lawsuit in the D.C. District Court for equitable relief, and they filed the other the next day in the CFC seeking monetary damages.

The issue before the Supreme Court was whether the CFC could take jurisdiction over the claim even though there was another claim pending in a district court. 28 U.S.C. § 1500 bars the CFC from taking jurisdiction over a case when there is a similar case pending in another court. The unsettled question was whether § 1500 barred the CFC from hearing a case when the similar cases overlapped just on their facts, or if § 1500 barred the CFC from hearing a case only when the similar cases shared the same facts and the same remedy.

Kennedy’s opinion focused on the use of the words “claim” and “cause of action” in § 1500. The opinion found that in the statute, “claim” and “cause of action” were used synonymously, and that both refer to just the facts of a complaint, not the remedy sought. According to Kennedy, “‘Cause of action’ is the more technical term, while ‘claim’ is often used in a commonsense way to mean a right or demand.”

The opinion concluded that, as used in the operative statute, “cause of action” refers only to the facts of a case, and not the facts and the remedy claimed. The opinion reached this conclusion because § 1500 applies to a “cause of action” against a federal official when the cause of action arose. And since no complaint had yet been filed when the cause of action arose, only the facts giving rise to cause of action would have been clear. The aggrieved party would not have claimed any remedy yet when the cause of action arose.

The court also analyzed the history and purpose of § 1500 and held that the statute bars the CFC from taking jurisdiction over lawsuits when the plaintiffs have another case merely with overlapping facts. Consequently it ordered the CFC to dismiss the lawsuit.

The opinion recognized that this holding could mean that some plaintiffs would be unable to remedy certain injuries, since the CFC and district courts have different authority to grant certain kinds of relief. For example, the CFC cannot grant equitable relief. Plaintiffs would have to choose between seeking equitable relief and monetary remedies because § 1500 would not let them bring claims in both a district court and the CFC. Nonetheless, the Court indicated that Congress had established this scheme and complaints about the inadequacy of the remedy should be directed to Congress.  The opinion stated: “This Court ‘enjoy[s] no liberty to add an exception … to remove apparent hardship.’”

Justice Sotomayor concurred in the judgment. She disagreed with the court’s holding that § 1500 bars claims with merely overlapping facts. However, she would have dismissed the case as well because she concluded that the plaintiffs’ remedies were overlapping too.

Justice Ginsburg dissented from the majority. She disagreed with the majority’s assertion that “claim” and “cause of action” are synonymous and that both refer only to the facts of a case. She argued that “entitlement to relief is essential to the existence of a claim or cause of action.” A cause of action that seeks one kind of relief is distinct from a cause of action that seeks different relief, even if both causes of action arose out of the same facts. Justice Ginsburg supported this definition by pointing out that Congress, by making some kinds of relief unavailable in certain courts, recognized that is appropriate for plaintiffs to simultaneously seek remedies in different courts for wrongs that arose out of one set of facts. Justice Ginsburg stated: “In its discourse on the term [cause of action], the Court has fallen into an old error; the drafters of the Federal Rules endeavored to ‘eliminate the unfortunate rigidity and confusion surrounding the words “cause of action.”’ 5 C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1216, p. 207 (3d ed.2004). Today’s invocation of a supposed particular or exact meaning for the phrase risks reviving that confusion.”

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