November 01, 2014

House committee approves bill to clarify claims court jurisdiction

The House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved ABA-supported legislation Nov. 13 that would clarify the jurisdiction of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims (CFC) and make it easier for parties pursuing claims against the federal government in multiple courts to obtain complete relief.

H.R. 5683, the “Ensuring Access to Justice for claims Against the United States Act,” addresses the procedural roadblocks created by the 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision in United States v. Tohono O’odham Nation, 563 U.S. (2011), which made it much more difficult for companies, property owners, Indian tribes and other parties with meritorious claims against the federal government to obtain complete relief in the courts. Although the CFC has long interpreted 28 U.S.C. 1500 to permit separate suits to proceed in the CFC and the district courts if the suits seek different remedies, the Supreme Court held that, based on the wording of the statute, the CFC has no jurisdiction over a claim if another suit based on the same operative facts is pending in any other court, regardless of the relief sought in each case.

The legislation, which is based on a recommendation from the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS) and supported by the ABA, would amend Section 1500 to allow parties to pursue legal claims involving the same operative facts in both the CFC and the district court but would require the court presiding over the second-filed action to stay that case until the first action is no longer pending. However, the bill also provides an exception to the requirement to stay the later action if the parties in each of the actions agree or the court concludes that the required stay is not in the interest of justice.

The ABA maintains that Section 1500 is an antiquated, Civil War-era statute that interferes with the efficiency and orderly administration of justice and results in the unfair dismissal of valid claims against the federal government. Therefore, the ABA has expressed support for H.R. 5683 and a similar Senate bill, S. 2769, both of which would reform the current statute by:

· protecting the United States from potentially duplicative litigation without denying claimants the opportunity to pursue a decision on the merits;

· allowing claimants to determine which of their legal claims will be stayed as they will know that the first-filed litigation would be litigated first; and

· providing that the stay would not apply and the two complementary cases could proceed simultaneously in the CFC and the district court if the parties agree or the court determines that the stay would be contrary to the interests of justice. 

During committee markup of the H.R. 5683, Ranking Member John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) voiced support for the bill but recommended that the measure be amended in order to address certain concerns that had been raised by Justice Department (DOJ). The DOJ amendment would narrow the grounds for a court to terminate or modify a stay to just those “exceptional circumstances” where it is “necessary to preserve material evidence or to prevent irreparable prejudice” to a party, and would provide for an interlocutory appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit of any such order that terminates or modifies a stay.

Conyers encouraged the bill sponsors, ACUS and the ABA to confer with DOJ to revise the bill to address the department’s concerns before the bill comes to the House floor. The ABA is working with committee staff, ACUS and DOJ in an effort to reach a consensus on the final language for the bill so that the legislation may be approved during this Congress.

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