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SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
DOUGLAS BROWNBACK, et al., PETITIONERS v.
on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the sixth circuit
[February 25, 2021]
Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court.
The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) allows a plaintiff to bring certain state-law tort suits against the Federal Government.
28 U. S. C. §2674; see also §1346(b). It also includes a provision, known as the judgment bar, which precludes “any action by the [plaintiff], by reason of the same subject matter, against the employee of the government whose act or omission gave rise to the claim” if a court enters “[t]he judgment in an action under section 1346(b).” §2676. The Sixth Circuit held that the District Court’s order dismissing the plaintiff’s FTCA claims did not trigger the judgment bar because the plaintiff’s failure to establish all elements of his FTCA claims had deprived the court of subject-matter jurisdiction. We disagree and hold that the District Court’s order also went to the merits of the claim and thus could trigger the judgment bar.
The FTCA streamlined litigation for parties injured by federal employees acting within the scope of their employment. Before 1946, a plaintiff could sue a federal employee directly for damages, but sovereign immunity barred suits against the United States, even if a similarly situated private employer would be liable under principles of vicarious liability. Pfander & Aggarwal, Bivens
, the Judgment Bar, and the Perils of Dynamic Textualism, 8 U. St. Thomas L. J. 417, 424–425 (2011); see also Philadelphia Co.
223 U.S. 605
, 619–620 (1912). Despite that immunity, the Government often would provide counsel to defendant employees or indemnify them. Pfander, 8 U. St. Thomas L. J., at 425. In addition, Congress passed private bills that awarded compensation to persons injured by Government employees. Id.,
at 424, n. 39. But by the 1940s, Congress was considering hundreds of such private bills each year. Ibid.
] “Critics worried about the speed and fairness with which Congress disposed of these claims.” Id.,
“In 1946, Congress passed the FTCA, which waived the sovereign immunity of the United States for certain torts committed by federal employees” acting within the scope of their employment. FDIC
510 U.S. 471
, 475–476 (1994). The Act in effect ended the private bill system by transferring most tort claims to the federal courts. See Pfander, 8 U. St. Thomas. L. J.,
at 424, n. 39. Plaintiffs were (and are) required to bring claims under the FTCA in federal district court. Federal courts have jurisdiction over these claims if they are “actionable under §1346(b).” Meyer
, 510 U. S., at 477. A claim is actionable if it alleges the six elements of §1346(b), which are that the claim be:
“ 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,  under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred.” Ibid.
While waiving sovereign immunity so parties can sue the United States directly for harms caused by its employees, the FTCA made it more difficult to sue the employees themselves by adding a judgment bar provision. That provision states: “The judgment in an action under section 1346(b) of this title shall constitute a complete bar to any action by the claimant, by reason of the same subject matter, against the employee of the government whose act or omission gave rise to the claim.” §2676. “[O]nce a plaintiff receives a judgment (favorable or not) in an FTCA suit,” the bar is triggered, and “he generally cannot proceed with a suit against an individual employee based on the same underlying facts.” Simmons
578 U.S. 621, 625 (2016). The Act thus opened a new path to relief (suits against the United States) while narrowing the earlier one (suits against employees).
This case involves a violent encounter between respondent James King and officers Todd Allen and Douglas Brownback, members of a federal task force, who mistook King for a fugitive. King sued the United States under the FTCA, alleging that the officers committed six torts under Michigan law. He also sued the officers individually under the implied cause of action recognized by Bivens
v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents
403 U.S. 388
(1971), alleging four violations of his
Fourth Amendment rights. The defendants moved to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. In the alternative, they moved for summary judgment.
The District Court dismissed King’s claims. As to his FTCA claims, the court granted the Government’s summary judgment motion.[2
] It found that the undisputed facts showed that the officers did not act with malice. The officers thus would have been entitled to state qualified immunity had Michigan tort claims been brought against them. See Odom
v. Wayne County
, 482 Mich. 459, 473–474, 760 N.W.2d 217, 224–225 (2008). The court, following its own precedent, ruled that the Government was immune because it retains the benefit of state-law immunities available to its employees. The court also ruled in the alternative that King’s FTCA claims failed under Rule 12(b)(6) because his complaint did not present enough facts to state a plausible claim to relief for any of his six tort claims. The court dismissed King’s Bivens
claims as well, ruling that the defendants were entitled to federal qualified immunity. King appealed only the dismissal of his Bivens
As a threshold question, the Sixth Circuit assessed whether the dismissal of King’s FTCA claims triggered the judgment bar and thus blocked the parallel Bivens
claims. See King
v. United States
, 917 F.3d 409, 418–421 (2019). It did not, according to the Sixth Circuit, because “the district court dismissed [King]’s FTCA claim[s] for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction” when it determined that he had not stated a viable claim and thus “did not reach the merits.” Id.,
at 419; but see Unus
, 565 F.3d 103, 121–122 (CA4 2009) (holding that summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ FTCA claims triggered judgment bar with respect to Bivens
claims). The Sixth Circuit then held that the defendant officers were not entitled to qualified immunity and reversed the District Court.
We granted certiorari, 589 U. S. ___ (2020), and now reverse.
The judgment bar provides that “[t]he judgment in an action under section 1346(b)” shall bar “any action by the claimant” involving the same subject matter against the employee of the Federal Government whose act gave rise to the claim. §2676. Here, the District Court entered a “Judgment . . . in favor of Defendants and against Plaintiff.” ECF Doc. 92. The parties agree that, at a minimum, this judgment must have been a final judgment on the merits to trigger the bar, given that the “provision functions in much the same way as [the common-law doctrine of claim preclusion].” Simmons
, 578 U. S., at 630, n. 5 (internal quotation marks omitted).[3
This Court has explained that the judgment bar was drafted against the backdrop doctrine of res judicata. See ibid
] To “trigge[r ] the doctrine of res judicata or claim preclusion” a judgment must be “ ‘on the merits.’ ” Semtek Int’l Inc.
v. Lockheed Martin Corp.
531 U.S. 497
, 502 (2001). Under that doctrine as it existed in 1946, a judgment is “on the merits” if the underlying decision “actually passes directly on the substance of a particular claim before the court.” Id.
, at 501–502 (cleaned up).[6
] Thus, to determine if the District Court’s decision is claim preclusive, we must determine if it passed directly on the substance of King’s FTCA claims. We conclude that it did.
The District Court’s summary judgment ruling hinged on a quintessential merits decision: whether the undisputed facts established all the elements of King’s FTCA claims. See Arbaugh
v. Y & H Corp.
546 U.S. 500
, 510–511 (2006). The court noted that one element of an FTCA claim is that the plaintiff establish that the Government employee would be liable under state law. The court then explained that Michigan law provides qualified immunity for Government employees who commit intentional torts but act in subjective good faith. See Odom
, 482 Mich., at 461, 481–482, 760 N. W. 2d, at 218, 229. And it concluded that, because the undisputed facts here showed that the officers would have been entitled to immunity from King’s tort claims, the United States, by extension, was not liable under the FTCA.[7
The court’s alternative Rule 12(b)(6) holding also passed on the substance of King’s FTCA claims. The District Court ruled that the FTCA count in King’s complaint did not state a claim, because even assuming the complaint’s veracity, the officers used reasonable force, had probable cause to detain King, and otherwise acted within their authority. “If the judgment determines that the plaintiff has no cause of action” based “on rules of substantive law,” then “it is on the merits.” Restatement of Judgments §49, Comment a
, p. 193 (1942). A ruling under Rule 12(b)(6) concerns the merits. Cf. Arbaugh
, 546 U. S., at 506–507. The District Court evaluated King’s six FTCA claims under Rule 12(b)(6) and ruled that they failed for reasons of substantive law.
The one complication in this case is that it involves overlapping questions about sovereign immunity and subject-matter jurisdiction. In such cases, the “merits and jurisdiction will sometimes come intertwined,” and a court can decide “all . . . of the merits issues” in resolving a jurisdictional question, or vice versa. Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela
v. Helmerich & Payne Int’l Drilling Co.
, 581 U. S. ___, ___ (2017) (slip op., at 7). That occurred here. The District Court passed on the substance of King’s FTCA claims and found them implausible. In doing so, the District Court also determined that it lacked jurisdiction. But an on-the-merits judgment can still trigger the judgment bar, even if that determination necessarily deprives the court of subject-matter jurisdiction.
The District Court did lack subject-matter jurisdiction over King’s FTCA claims. In most cases, a plaintiff’s failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6) does not deprive a federal court of subject-matter jurisdiction. See Steel Co.
v. Citizens for Better Environment
523 U.S. 83
, 89 (1998). “Dismissal for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction . . . is proper only when the claim is so . . . ‘completely devoid of merit as not to involve a federal controversy.’ ” Ibid.
However, a plaintiff must plausibly allege all jurisdictional elements. See, e.g., Dart Cherokee Basin Operating Co.
574 U.S. 81
, 89 (2014). And in the unique context of the FTCA, all elements of a meritorious claim are also jurisdictional. Meyer
, 510 U. S., at 477. So even though a plaintiff need not prove
a §1346(b)(1) jurisdictional element for a court to maintain subject-matter jurisdiction over his claim, see ibid.
, a plaintiff must plausibly allege all six FTCA elements not only to state a claim upon which relief can be granted but also for a court to have subject-matter jurisdiction over the claim. That means a plaintiff must plausibly allege that “the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant” under state law both to survive a merits determination under Rule 12(b)(6) and to establish subject-matter jurisdiction. §1346(b)(1). Because King’s tort claims failed to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the United States necessarily retained sovereign immunity, also depriving the court of subject-matter jurisdiction.
Ordinarily, a court cannot issue a ruling on the merits “when it has no jurisdiction” because “to do so is, by very definition, for a court to act ultra vires.” Steel Co.
, 523 U. S., at 101–102. But where, as here, pleading a claim and pleading jurisdiction entirely overlap, a ruling that the court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction may simultaneously be a judgment on the merits that triggers the judgment bar.[8
] A dismissal for lack of jurisdiction is still a “judgment.” See Restatement of Judgments §49, Comment a
, at 193–194 (discussing “judgment . . . based on the lack of jurisdiction”). And even though the District Court’s ruling in effect deprived the court of jurisdiction, the District Court necessarily passed on the substance of King’s FTCA claims. See Part II–B, supra
. Under the common law, judgments were preclusive with respect to issues decided as long as the court had the power to decide the issue. See Restatement of Judgments §49, Comment b
, at 195–196. Because “a federal court always has jurisdiction to determine its own jurisdiction,” United States
536 U.S. 622
, 628 (2002), a federal court can decide an element of an FTCA claim on the merits if that element is also jurisdictional. The District Court did just that with its Rule 12(b)(6) decision.[9
* * *
We conclude that the District Court’s order was a judgment on the merits of the FTCA claims that can trigger the judgment bar. The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.
It is so ordered