McNeil v. United States
508 U.S. 106 (1993)

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OCTOBER TERM, 1992

Syllabus

McNEIL v. UNITED STATES

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT

No. 92-6033. Argued April 19, 1993-Decided May 17, 1993

Four months after petitioner McNeil, proceeding without counsel, filed this Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) suit for money damages arising from his alleged injury by the United States Public Health Service, he submitted a claim for such damages to the Department of Health and Human Services, which promptly denied the claim. The District Court subsequently dismissed McNeil's complaint as premature under an FTCA provision, 28 U. S. C. § 2675(a), which requires that a claimant exhaust his administrative remedies before bringing suit. The Court of Appeals affirmed, although decisions in other Circuits have permitted a prematurely filed FTCA action to proceed if no substantial progress has taken place in the litigation before the administrative remedies are exhausted.

Held: An FTCA action may not be maintained when the claimant failed to exhaust his administrative remedies prior to filing suit, but did so before substantial progress was made in the litigation. Section 2675(a)'s unambiguous text-which commands that an "action shall not be instituted ... unless the claimant shall have first presented the claim to the appropriate ... agency and his claim shall have been finally denied by the agency"-requires rejection of McNeil's contention that his action was timely because it was commenced when he lodged his complaint with the District Court. The complaint was filed too early, since McNeil's claim had not previously been presented to the Public Health Service nor "finally denied" by that agency. Also unpersuasive is McNeil's argument that his action was timely because it should be viewed as having been "instituted" on the date when his administrative claim was denied. In its statutory context, the normal interpretation of the word "institute" is synonymous with the words "begin" and "commence." The most natural reading of the statute indicates that Congress intended to require complete exhaustion of Executive remedies before invocation of the judicial process. Moreover, given the clarity of the statutory text, it is certainly not a "trap for the unwary." Pp. 110-113.

964 F.2d 647, affirmed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.


107

Allen E. Shoen berger, by appointment of the Court, 507

William K. Kelley argued the cause for the United States.

With him on the brief were Acting Solicitor General Bryson, Acting Assistant Attorney General Schiffer, Deputy Solicitor General Mahoney, Mark B. Stern, and Henry D. Gabriel.*

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) provides that an "action shall not be instituted upon a claim against the United States for money damages" unless the claimant has first exhausted his administrative remedies.1 The question presented is whether such an action may be maintained when the claimant failed to exhaust his administrative remedies prior to filing suit, but did so before substantial progress was made in the litigation.

I

On March 6, 1989, petitioner, proceeding without counsel, lodged a complaint in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, alleging that the United States Public Health Service had caused him serious injuries while "conducting human research and experimentation on prisoners" in the custody of the Illinois Department of Cor-

* Joseph A. Power, Jr., and Arthur H. Bryant filed a brief for Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, P. C., as amicus curiae urging reversal.

1 Title 28 U. S. C. § 2675(a) provides, in pertinent part:

"An action shall not be instituted upon a claim against the United States for money damages for injury or loss of property or personal injury or death caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government while acting within the scope of his office or employment, unless the claimant shall have first presented the claim to the appropriate Federal agency and his claim shall have been finally denied by the agency in writing and sent by certified or registered mail. The failure of an agency to make final disposition of a claim within six months after it is filed shall, at the option of the claimant any time thereafter, be deemed a final denial of the claim for purposes of this section."


108
Full Text of Opinion

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