Stafford v. Briggs
444 U.S. 527 (1980)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Stafford v. Briggs, 444 U.S. 527 (1980)

Stafford v. Briggs

No. 77-1546

Argued April 24, 1979

Reargued November 7, 1979

Decided February 20, 1980*

444 U.S. 527

Syllabus

In No. 77-1546, respondents, who had been among those subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury in Florida investigating a possible conspiracy to cause a riot, brought suit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia against petitioners (the then United States Attorney and Assistant United States Attorney for the Northern District of Florida, and a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent) and a Department of Justice attorney, individually and in their official capacities, alleging a conspiracy to deprive respondents of various statutory and constitutional rights, and seeking damages and a declaratory judgment. Petitioners, each of whom resided in Florida, were served by certified mail, and the Department of Justice attorney, who resided in the District of Columbia, was served personally. Respondents relied on § 2 of the Mandamus and Venue Act of 1962 (Act), 28 U.S.C. § 1391(e), which provides in part that

"[a] civil action in which a defendant is an officer or employee of the United States or any agency thereof acting in his official capacity or under color of legal authority . . . may, except as otherwise provided by law, be brought in any judicial district in which (1) a defendant in the action resides, or (2) the cause of action arose . . . or (4) the plaintiff resides if no real property is involved in the action,"

and that delivery of the summons and complaint to the officer in such an action may be made by certified mail beyond the territorial limits of the district in which the action is brought. The District Court dismissed the action, ruling that venue was improper and that the court lacked in personam jurisdiction over petitioners. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that § 2 permits damages actions against federal officials to be brought in any district in which any one defendant resides, and that, since the Department of Justice attorney was a resident of the District of Columbia, venue there was proper. In No. 78-303, respondents, whose mail between the United States and the Soviet Union had allegedly been opened by the Central Intelligence

Page 444 U. S. 528

Agency, brought suit in the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island against petitioners (the then Director and Deputy Director of the CIA) and others, in their individual and official capacities, alleging that interference with respondents' mail violated their constitutional rights and seeking damages as well as declaratory and injunctive relief. Petitioners and the other defendants were served outside of Rhode Island by certified mail. The District Court denied the defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction, improper venue, and insufficiency of process, but certified the questions involved for an immediate appeal. The Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's order as to petitioners, who were CIA officials when the complaint was filed, but reversed as to those defendants who had left their Government positions at the time of filing, holding that § 2 applied to damages actions against federal officials in their individual capacities and provided the mechanism for obtaining personal jurisdiction over them, and that accordingly venue was proper in Rhode Island because one of the respondents resided there.

Held: Section 2 of the Act does not apply to actions for money damages brought against federal officials in their individual capacities. Pp. 444 U. S. 533-545.

(a) Section 2's language "is an officer or employee of the United States or any agency thereof acting in his official capacity or under color of legal authority" can reasonably be read as describing the character of the defendant at the time of suit, and, so read, limits a covered "civil action" to one against a federal official who is at that time acting, or failing to act, in an official or apparently official way. Such a "civil action" is that referred to in § 1 of the Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1361, which gives district courts jurisdiction of

"any action in the nature of.mandamus to compel an officer or employee of the United States or any agency thereof to perform a duty owed to the plaintiff."

Pp. 444 U. S. 535-536.

(b) The Act's legislative history clearly indicates that Congress intended nothing more than to provide nationwide venue for the convenience of individual plaintiffs in actions that are nominally against an individual officer but are in reality against the Government. A suit for money damages which must be paid out of the pocket of the private individual who happens to be -- or formerly was -- employed by the Government plainly is not one "essentially against the United States," and thus is not encompassed by the venue provisions of § 2. Pp. 444 U. S. 536-543.

(c) If § 2 were construed to govern damages actions against federal officers individually, suits could be brought against those officers while in Government service -- and could be pressed even after the officer has

Page 444 U. S. 529

left service -- in any one of the 95 federal districts covering the 50 states and other areas within federal jurisdiction. This would place federal officers, solely by reason of their Government service, in a very different posture in personal damages suits from that of all other persons, since, under 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b), damages suits against private persons must be brought in the district where all the defendants reside or in which the claim arose. Such was not the intent of Congress. Pp. 444 U. S. 544-545.

No. 77-1546, 186 U.S.App.D.C. 170, 569 F.2d 1, and No. 78-303, 577 F.2d 147, reversed and remanded.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post p 444 U. S. 545. WHITE, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases. MARSHALL, J., took no part in the decision of the case.

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