Friday, August 4, 2017

Mistakenly locked up for three years, US citizen cannot bring lawsuit

This case involves an American citizen who was locked up for three years because the authorities thought he was a deportable immigrant. He was not. After he left custody, the plaintiff sued his captors, and he prevailed in the district court, which awarded him $82,500 in damages. The Court of Appeals reverses, and the plaintiff has no case.

The case is Watson v. United States, decided on July 31. In locking up Watson, "ICE agents were presented with information strongly suggesting that Watson was a citizen based on his father’s naturalization, but the agents did not competently pursue the leads. For example, during Watson’s first interview with ICE, he claimed U.S. citizenship, told the ICE agents the names of his father and step-mother, and gave their telephone number to assist the investigation. The ICE agents did not call the telephone number, despite writing a note to do so in order 'to verify status.'" The Second Circuit highlights other blunders that led to Watson's incarceration.

Watson loses because the statute of limitations under the Federal Tort Claims Act is two years. The Court (Jacobs, Livingston and Katzmann [partially dissenting]) states that "a false imprisonment claim starts to run when a detainee begins to be held pursuant to legal process." The Court holds that Watson was held pursuant to such process by the time an immigration judge ordered Watson's removal from the U.S., which occurred on November 13, 2008. By that date, an immigration judge had ruled that the government had the right to detail Watson Since Watson's claim for false imprisonment was filed on October 20, 2013, his claim was untimely.

What about equitable tolling? Under that theory, the statute of limitations is put on hold (extending the time to bring the lawsuit) if the plaintiff "has been pursuing his rights diligently and some extraordinary circumstance stood in this way. Surely this helps Watson, right? The Second Circuit notes that "Watson's case is certainly extraordinary in a number of unfortunate ways." But we define "extraordinary" based on "the severity of the obstacle impeding compliance with a limitations period." Plaintiff must also show these extraordinary circumstances caused him to miss the deadline. The Court writes:

The district court’s grant of equitable tolling was based on Watson’s lack of education and legal training, his unawareness that he could bring an FTCA claim until being advised by appointed counsel, his depression, and “most significantly,” the fact that government officials told Watson that he was not a U.S. citizen. None of those reasons justifies equitable tolling.
 The Court explains it this way: (1) Watson "mounted a vigorous case in the immigration court" in trying to stop his deportation; (2) his depression did not stop him from contesting his citizenship before the immigration judge, so he could have pursued his damages claim and (3) equitable tolling does not usually help the plaintiff simply because of his lack of education or ignorance of his right to bring the claim.

Watson also has no claim for malicious prosecution and negligence, the Court says, because he cannot show malice on the part of the people who locked him up; it was more likely negligence, which is not malicious. However, under NY law, there is no claim for "negligent investigation,"
and state law did not require ICE officials to follow their own directives.

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