The Jurisdiction of the Court of Federal Claims and Forum-Shopping in Money Claims Against the Federal Government
68 Pages Posted: 25 Nov 2011 Last revised: 21 Dec 2012
Date Written: December 19, 2012
Over the past decade, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has issued a series of opinions clarifying the jurisdictional priority of the Court of Federal Claims (CFC) under the Tucker Act over claims against the United States that are means to a monetary end, even if cleverly or mistakenly drafted as suits for injunctive or declaratory relief under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) that could be filed in District Court. Because the APA expressly excludes judicial review in District Court when an “adequate remedy” lies in another court, the CFC retains its traditional and exclusive jurisdiction to hear claims against the Federal Government that are adequately remedied by a money judgment.
This venerable understanding was disturbed by an aberrational decision a decade ago in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. In Cobell v. Babbitt, the District Court assumed authority under the APA to adjudicate claims for mis-management of government-established financial accounts for the distribution of profits derived from Native American resources held in trust by the United States. The District Court aggressively extended the Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in Bowen v. Massachusetts — a unique case arising from the Federal-State administration of the Medicaid health care program that the Supreme Court had found unsuited for review in the CFC. To add to the jurisdictional chaos, several tribes then filed breach of trust claims in the District Court seeking an accounting and restitution, while simultaneously filing parallel breach of trust lawsuits in the CFC that forthrightly sought money damages.
In early 2011, in United States v. Tohono O’odham Nation, the Supreme Court held that money judgment lawsuits filed in the CFC must be dismissed if parallel litigation for specific relief is pending in the District Court. Reading 28 U.S.C. § 1500 as “a robust response” to the burdens of duplicative litigation against the United States, the Court held that a plaintiff may not maintain one lawsuit in the CFC while a second lawsuit is proceeding in another court that arises out of the same operative facts, even if the two lawsuits seek wholly different relief. In rejecting the plaintiff’s claim of hardship in that case, the Tohono Court observed that the plaintiff “could have filed in the CFC alone and if successful obtained monetary relief to compensate for any losses caused by the Government’s breach of duty.”
In the aftermath of Tohono, attempted detours from the CFC in what essentially are money claims should be coming to an end. Recent rulings in both the Supreme Court and the Federal Circuit confirm that, when “[a]t bottom it is a suit for money,” then “the Court of Federal Claims can provide an adequate remedy, and it therefore belongs in that court.”
Keywords: federal courts, subject matter jurisdiction, federal jurisdiction, sovereign immunity, litigation with the federal government, indian law, indian breach of trust claims, court of federal claims, Cobell, Tohono, Tucker Act, Administrative Procedure Act, administrative law, remedies
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