Tuckered Out in Federal Court: Splitting Claims Against the Government


Linda S Mullenix

14 Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases 422


This article previews the issues and arguments in Bowen v. Common wealth of Massachusetts, on the Supreme Court’s 1987-88 appellate docket. The issue in this case concerns whether Massachusetts, In suing to reclaim more than eleven million dollars in federal money, may sue in federal district court or must sue in the United States Claims Court. In the alternative, the Court may decide whether it is permissible for a district court to split the state's claims in two, retaining jurisdiction over those nonmonetary claims seeking prospective relief, while sending monetary claims in excess of ten thousand dollars to the Claims Court.

This controversy is about the proper place to sue the federal government. Ordinarily, that is a fairly simple matter. If you are a defense contractor and the government refused to pay for manufacturing a military satellite, you would sue the government for more than $10,000 in the United States Claims Court under the "Big Tucker Act." If you manufactured the lug nuts and the government refused to pay, you would sue for less than $10,000 In federal district court under the "Little Tucker Act." If the satellite fell on your house, you would sue in federal district court under the Federal Torts Claim Act. Finally, If you wanted an injunction and declaratory judgment that such satellite trajectories were impermissible, you would sue In federal district court under the Administrative Procedure Act.

A nasty little problem arises, however, if you want to sue the government seeking both large monetary damages and equitable relief. For example, If you want to sue for breach of contract for failure to pay for the satellite, as well as for an injunction restraining the government from future breach, it is unclear where to adjudicate these claims. Do the different statutes require the claims to be heard exclusively in the Claims Court, or the federal district court? Is it appropriate for the claims to be split and heard in different courts? What does legislative history suggest, precedent mandate and justice require?

Clearly, as long as monetary and equitable relief are raised in separate actions, the Administrative Procedure Act and Tucker Act are compatible and fairly clear in scope. When a complaint raises mixed claims a dispute arises as to the appropriate forum for relief. On this issue the Circuit Courts of Appeal are split concerning the proper solution. Some courts, including the Fourth, Fifth and Tenth Circuits, have adopted a "primary purpose" test which asks whether the primary purpose of a complaint Is to seek past due money rather than effect an ongoing federal-state relationship.

If this is so, the entire case must be transferred to the Claims Court. On the contrary, other circuits including the First Circuit have adopted a "prospective significance" test which looks to whether the dispute concerns a legal issue that has "significant, prospective effect between the federal agency and the affected state." If this Is so, then the federal district court properly may hear the entire case, or in the alternative, transfer only the monetary claims to the Claims Court.

As this case is currently presented to the Supreme Court, both sides are urging that the problem is more one of characterization than statutory Interpretation. Massachusetts now asserts that its complaint never sought monetary relief but only federal judicial review of an agency action. Therefore, relief is exclusively vested in district court. The Secretary of HHS, on the contrary, urges that Massachusetts cannot evade jurisdictional imperatives by artfully pleading its forms of relief, or by recasting its requests as nonmonetary.

What is really at stake, however, is the extent to which the Supreme Court wishes to sanction and encourage the consolidation of claims against the federal government in the Claims Court in Washington, D.C., with appeal exclusively to the Federal Circuit. There is some support for the view that the Supreme Court would like to centralize all large monetary claims against the government in one court, to encourage uniformity of results. In addition, the government conjures up the evil effects of forum shopping and attendant res Judicata implications if the Court now sanctions claim splitting in different federal arenas. Massachusetts, in response, urges that citizens and states be spared the burden of having to appear in Washington to sue the government for redress.

Full Citation

Linda S. Mullenix, Tuckered Out in Federal Court: Splitting Claims Against the Government, 1987-88 Preview of U.S. Supreme Court Cases 422.