Wheeldin v. Wheeler
373 U.S. 647 (1963)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Wheeldin v. Wheeler, 373 U.S. 647 (1963)

Wheeldin v. Wheeler

No. 493

Argued April 23, 1963

Decided June 3, 1963

373 U.S. 647




Basing jurisdiction on 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and not alleging diversity of citizenship, petitioner Dawson brought suit in a Federal District Court against respondent, an investigator for the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Petitioner alleged that, without authorization from the Committee but acting under color of his office, respondent had caused a subpoena to appear as a witness before the Committee to be served on petitioner at his place of work, and that this caused him to lose his job and otherwise injured him. He sought damages and declaratory and injunctive relief. His reliance was on a claim of violation of the Fourth Amendment and of a statute authorizing issuance of subpoenas; but, so far as the complaint disclosed, he was neither arrested nor detained pursuant to the subpoena, he did not respond to the subpoena, nor was the subpoena used to cite him for contempt.


1. On the face of the complaint, the Federal Court had jurisdiction. P. 373 U. S. 649.

2. The facts alleged and conceded do not establish a violation of the Fourth Amendment; the provisions of the Civil Rights Act are inapplicable; Congress has not created a cause of action for abuse of the subpoena power by a federal officer, at least where the subpoena was never given effect; and the complaint failed to state a federal cause of action. Pp. 373 U. S. 649-652.

302 F.2d 36, affirmed.

Page 373 U. S. 648

MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner Dawson [Footnote 1] was served with a subpoena to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He alleges that the subpoena was signed in blank by the Committee Chairman and that respondent Wheeler, an investigator for the Committee, filled in Dawson's name without authorization of the Committee. We read the complaint, as does the Solicitor General, most favorably to Dawson, and conclude that the complaint alleges that no member of the Committee even attempted to delegate the Committee's subpoena power to Wheeler. The complaint also alleges that Wheeler intended to subject petitioner, when he appeared as a witness before the Committee, to public shame, disgrace, ridicule, stigma, scorn, and obloquy, and falsely place upon him the stain of disloyalty without any opportunity of fair defense, to petitioner's irreparable injury. The complaint alleges not only the lack of authority of respondent Wheeler to fill in the blank subpoena, but also the unconstitutionality of the House Resolution and the Act of Congress, 60 Stat. 828, authorizing the Committee to act and to subpoena witnesses. The complaint alleges that the mere service of the subpoena on Dawson cost him his job, and that Wheeler caused service to be made while petitioner was at work, knowing that loss of employment would result. It prays that the subpoena be declared void and of no force or effect, and asks for damages and for an injunction.

The District Court denied declaratory and injunctive relief, holding that, since Dawson's appearance did not seem imminent, the case was not ripe for equitable intervention, and that the mere apprehension that a federal

Page 373 U. S. 649

right might be infringed at some future time did not warrant declaratory or injunctive relief at the present time. The District Court held that no federal cause of action was stated as respects damages, and dismissed the complaint for lack of jurisdiction over the subject matter. The Court of Appeals held that declaratory relief, being within the District Court's discretion, was properly denied, and that the claim for injunctive relief had become moot. It held, however, that, "in the sense of Bell v. Hood,327 U. S. 678," there was "jurisdiction to entertain the claim for money damages," and to that extent reversed. 280 F.2d 293. On remand, the District Court dismissed the action without opinion. The Court of Appeals affirmed. 302 F.2d 36. The case is here on a petition for a writ of certiorari which we granted. 371 U.S. 812. The basic question presented is whether a federal claim for damages is stated.

We agree with the Court of Appeals in its first opinion (280 F.2d 293) that, on the face of the complaint, the federal court had jurisdiction. As we stated in Bell v. Hood,327 U. S. 678, 327 U. S. 685,

"the right of the petitioners to recover under their complaint will be sustained if the Constitution and laws of the United States are given one construction and will be defeated if they are given another. For this reason, the district court has jurisdiction."

And see Bock v. Perkins,139 U. S. 628, 139 U. S. 630.

But, on the undisputed facts as they appear on argument of the case, no federal cause of action can be made out. Dawson's main reliance is on the Fourth Amendment, which protects a person against unreasonable searches and seizures. Its violation, he contends, occurred when an unauthorized subpoena was served on him. But there was neither a search nor a seizure of him. He was neither arrested nor detained pursuant to any subpoena; nor, so far as the complaint discloses, did he

Page 373 U. S. 650

respond to the subpoena and either testify or refuse to testify; nor was the subpoena used to cite him for contempt. Cf. Williams v. United States,341 U. S. 97. In short, the facts alleged do not establish a violation of the Fourth Amendment. And the provisions of the Civil Rights Act are clearly inapplicable to this kind of case. See R.S. §§ 1979, 1980, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985; [Footnote 2] Tenney v. Brandhove,341 U. S. 367; Monroe v. Pape,365 U. S. 167.

Apart from any rights which may arise under the Fourth Amendment, Congress has not created a cause of action for abuse of the subpoena power by a federal officer, at least where the subpoena was never given coercive effect. No claim is made that the Federal Tort Claims Act reaches that far. [Footnote 3] Cf. Hatahley v. United States,351 U. S. 173. There is much discussion in the briefs of Barr v. Matteo,360 U. S. 564. But that was a libel action brought against a federal official in the District of Columbia. And the immunity doctrine of that case and Howard v. Lyons,360 U. S. 593, upon which the

Page 373 U. S. 651

Court of Appeals rested, is not relevant here, for, as the Solicitor General has conceded, under the allegations of the complaint, respondent Wheeler was not acting sufficiently within the scope of his authority to bring the doctrine into play.

It is argued that the statute governing the issuance of subpoenas [Footnote 4] not having been complied with, a cause of action for damages "arises" under it within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. § 1331. As respects the creation by the federal courts of common law rights, it is perhaps needless to state that we are not in the free-wheeling days antedating Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins,304 U. S. 64. The instances where we have created federal common law are few and restricted. In Clearfield Trust Co. v. United States,318 U. S. 363, we created federal common law to govern transactions in the commercial paper of the United States; and we did so in view of the desirability of a uniform rule in that area. Id., p. 318 U. S. 367. But even that rule was qualified in Bank of America Nat. Trust & Sav. Ass'n v. Parnell,352 U. S. 29. In Tunstall v. Brotherhood,323 U. S. 210, the federal right was derived from the federal duty of the union to act as bargaining representative for all members of the union. [Footnote 5] But it is difficult for us to see how the present statute, which only grants power to issue subpoenas, implies a cause of action for abuse of that power. Congress

Page 373 U. S. 652

has not done here what was done in Textile Workers Union of America v. Lincoln Mills,353 U. S. 448, and left to federal courts the creation of a federal common law for abuse of process.

When it comes to suits for damages for abuse of power, federal officials are usually governed by local law. See, e.g., 15 U. S. Mayberry, 2 Wheat. 1, 15 U. S. 10, 12. Federal law, however, supplies the defense, if the conduct complained of was done pursuant to a federally imposed duty (see, e.g., 73 U. S. Cooper, 6 Wall. 247; cf. Tennessee v. Davis,100 U. S. 257), or immunity from suit. See Barr v. Matteo, supra; Howard v. Lyons, supra. Congress could, of course, provide otherwise, but it has not done so. Over the years, Congress has considered the problem of state civil and criminal actions against federal officials many times. See Hart and Wechsler, The Federal Courts and the Federal System, 1147-1150. But no general statute making federal officers liable for acts committed "under color," but in violation, of their federal authority has been passed. Congress has provided for removal to a federal court of any state action, civil or criminal, against "[a]ny officer of the United States . . . , or person acting under him, for any act under color of such office. . . ." 28 U.S.C. § 1442(a)(1). That state law governs the cause of action alleged is shown by the fact that removal is possible in a nondiversity case such as this one only because the interpretation of a federal defense makes the case one "arising under" the Constitution or laws of the United States. See Tennessee v. Davis, supra; Gay v. Ruff,292 U. S. 25, 292 U. S. 34. We conclude, therefore, that it is not for us to fill any hiatus Congress has left in this area.

No question of pendent jurisdiction, as in Hurn v. Oursler,289 U. S. 238, is presented, for petitioner has not attempted to state a claim under state law.

We hold on the conceded facts that no federal cause of action was stated, and that the judgment must be and is


Page 373 U. S. 653

[Footnote 1]

Petitioner Donald Wheeldin was in the case when we granted certiorari. But since that time, Wheeldin has moved for leave to withdraw his petition, which motion we hereby grant.

[Footnote 2]

By § 1983, Congress made liable in civil suits "every person" who "under color" of any state or territorial law deprives anyone of a right "secured by the Constitution and laws" of the United States. But respondent Wheeler was not acting "under color" (see Screws v. United States,325 U. S. 91, 325 U. S. 108, 325 U. S. 111; Monroe v. Pape,365 U. S. 167, 365 U. S. 171-187) of state or territorial law. And even if § 1985 applies to federal officers (compare Screws v. United States, supra, with Collins v. Hardyman,341 U. S. 651) who conspire with others to commit acts falling within the narrow confines of that statute, no such conspiracy is here involved. See generally 1 Emerson and Haber, Political and Civil Rights in the United States, 79-100; 1961 United States Commission on Civil Rights Report, Book 5, 71-77.

[Footnote 3]

28 U.S.C. § 2680 provides:

"The provisions of [the Tort Claims Act] . . . shall not apply to --"

"* * * *"

"(h) Any claim arising out of assault, battery, false imprisonment, false arrest, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, libel, slander, misrepresentation, deceit, or interference with contract rights."

[Footnote 4]

Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, P.L. 601, c. 753, House Rule XI(1) (q)(2), 60 Stat. 828:

"Subpoenas may be issued under the signature of the chairman of the committee [on Un-American Activities] or any subcommittee, or by any member designated by any such chairman. . . ."

[Footnote 5]

The other cases cited are singularly inapposite. Holmberg v. Armbrecht,327 U. S. 392, was a suit to enforce a liability created by a federal statute, and the question was what remedies the federal courts should apply. Howard v. Lyons,360 U. S. 593, held in a diversity suit for libel against a federal official that, although state law created the right, the defense of privilege is to be formulated by the federal courts. Id.,360 U. S. 597.


The Court of Appeals characterized petitioners' suit as follows:

"The gravamen of their complaint is that the subpoenas were invalidly, maliciously and mischievously issued and served for the sole purpose of exposing them to public scorn with consequent loss of employment and of esteem. They assert that they have a federal right to protection against such abuse of federal process; that, since the subpoenas were not properly issued, appellee, in securing their issuance and service, has subjected himself to personal liability."

302 F.2d 36-37. The Court of Appeals did not, however, decide whether such a "federal right" exists and, if so, whether the complaint sufficiently alleged a denial of it. It sustained the District Court's dismissal on the sole ground that the allegedly unlawful acts had been committed by respondent in the line of his duty as a federal officer, and that, therefore, he was immune from suit by reason of the principles announced in Barr v. Matteo,360 U. S. 564. In this Court, the Solicitor General of the United States, appearing as counsel for the respondent, candidly admits that the Court of Appeals misapplied Barr v. Matteo. In that case, we upheld the governmental officer immunity in respect of "action . . . taken . . . within the outer perimeter of petitioner's line of duty." 360 U.S. at 360 U. S. 575. It has never been suggested that the immunity reaches beyond that perimeter, so as to shield a federal officer acting wholly on his own. A federal officer remains liable for acts committed "manifestly or palpably beyond his authority." Spalding v. Vilas,161 U. S. 483, 161 U. S. 498; see Colpoys v. Gates, 73 App.D.C. 193, 118 F.2d 16; Kozlowski v. Ferrara, 117 F.Supp. 650; Note, Remedies Against the United States and Its Officials, 70 Harv.L.Rev. 827, 835 (1957). Liberally construed, see Virgin Islands Corp. v. W. A. Taylor & Co., 202 F.2d 61; 2 Moore, Federal practice (2d ed. 1948),

Page 373 U. S. 654

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