Sixth Circuit Rules that Feds Can't Collect Twice
On July 10, 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that because liability under the workers’ compensation scheme for federal employees, the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (“FECA”) is “exclusive” of “all other liability of the United States” to the employee under tort liability statutes, the plaintiff could not recover under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”) even when his “work-related injury [had] been allegedly negligently treated by an entirely non-work-related federal hospital.
An Army veteran, and employee of the United States Postal Service that walked up to eight miles every day for work, received treatment at a VA hospital, where he was diagnosed with a sprain in his right foot. The employee returned to the hospital a month later after stepping in a hole during his mail route. Again, despite persistent pain, he was not diagnosed with anything more serious than a sprain. In December, the employee returned to the VA hospital, where he was referred to a podiatrist at the VA. The podiatrist diagnosed the employee with a fracture in his right foot. This diagnosis carried a recovery time of six weeks of no weight-bearing while wearing a cast.
The employee applied for FECA benefits and listed the tripping incident during his mail route as the cause of the injury. Over the course of the next year, the VA podiatrist performed two unsuccessful surgeries on the employee. When the pain persisted, the employee sought out a non-VA orthopedist, who referred a non-VA orthopedic surgeon. That surgeon performed a successful third surgery, and a successful follow-up surgery.
The employee received FECA benefits as a result of his application for the benefits, including benefits for temporary total disability and medical expenses. On November 1, 2012, the employee filed suit against the United States under the FTCA, claiming that the VA was negligent in mistreating him during the diagnosis and surgery stages of his treatment at the VA. The government filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that under 5 U.S.C. § 8116(c), FECA’s “exclusive-remedy” provision, the receipt of FECA benefits precluded suit against the United States in tort over the same injury.
The district court denied the summary judgment motion, and after a bench trial, found that the VA was negligent in failing to diagnose the fracture, in failing to prescribe non-weight-bearing treatment, and in performing the first unsuccessful surgery. The Government appealed the district court’s decision, arguing that the FTCA suit should not have been allowed to continue given FECA’s exclusive-remedy provision.
The appeals court reversed the district court’s judgment, finding that FECA’s exclusive remedy provision applied, barring suit under the FTCA, because the employee’s recovery under FECA was for an injury he sustained while at work. The appeals court distinguished this case from Wright v. United States, 717 F.2d 254 (6th Cir. 1983), the case cited by the district court, which involved a secretary at a VA hospital who suffered a ruptured tubal pregnancy which was treated by her employer, the VA hospital. After discharge, she sued the Government for use of a respirator during the incident under the FTCA. According to the appeals court, the secretary in Wright was not entitled to FECA coverage for her injuries because they were not sustained while the secretary “was performing her work-related duties,” and therefore did not pose a substantial question of FECA coverage.
As a final note, the appeals court observed that other courts of appeals have made similar holdings: that the “dual-capacity doctrine,” wherein an individual is both an employee and a patient, does not create an exception to FECA’s exclusive-remedy provision.
For the above stated reasons, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Court reversed the district court’s judgment, and remanded the case for proceedings consistent with its opinion.
Read the full case: Williamson v. United States of America
This case law update was written by Conor D. Dirks, associate attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, PC.
For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.
Posted in Case Law Update