Justices' comments give Grand Rapids man hope of having his day in court

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Monday on whether a lawsuit stemming from the 2014 police beating of a Grand Rapids man mistaken for a fugitive may proceed.

The justices' questions focused on the technical legal rules controlling the fate of the lawsuit filed by James King, now 27, who sued the government for damages for what he alleges was unconstitutional behavior by the officers, who were with a joint fugitive task force between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the city of Grand Rapids.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled two years ago that King's constitutional claims of unreasonable search and seizure and use of excessive force against officers Todd Allen and Douglas Brownback could proceed.

The federal government, represented by the U.S. Solicitor General's office, is asking the high court to reverse that decision, arguing that King's constitutional claims must fail because the part of his lawsuit he brought against the government under what's known as the Federal Tort Claims Act was rejected by a lower court. 

James King of Grand Rapids outside of the U.S. Supreme Court

"The decision below would permit a plaintiff to bring a lawsuit against the United States, litigate it all the way to summary judgment, lose on the grounds that the government employees did not do what was alleged of them, and then turn around and pursue claims against the same employees using the same factual allegations," Michael R. Huston, assistant to the solicitor general, told the justices. "That result makes little sense." 

King's lawyer, Patrick Jaicomo of the Institute for Justice, argued there is no chance of "duplicative" litigation that the government is concerned about when legal claims are brought together in same lawsuit, as King's were.

The justices heard the arguments via teleconference, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After the hearing, Jaicomo said he hoped a majority of the justices would ultimately affirm the 6th Circuit's ruling and "simply allow James to have his day in court."

Jaicomo told reporters he was optimistic because "almost every" justice who engaged on the substantive issues Monday about whether a particular provision of the Federal Torts Claims Act should apply to a case like James' "seemed to agree with us that it shouldn't."

"Even those who were on the fence about how they would like to address the case were really focused on whether the particular issue that James should win on is properly before the court, as opposed to whether James is right on the law," James' attorney said. 

Case background

King was a 21-year-old sophomore at Grand Valley State University when Allen and Brownback, dressed in plainclothes, asked him to step off the sidewalk and questioned him, asking for identification. The officers say they wearing badges on lanyards, but King says he didn't see them.

King thought he was being mugged and tried to run, then fought back after one of the officers tacked him, he says, calling out for passersby to call the police to help him.

He had been walking from one summer job to another. King loosely fit a general description of the fugitive that the officers were looking for who had a warrant out for his arrest on home invasion charges — a young white male with glasses between 5 feet 10 and 6 feet 3 inches tall. Their photo of the fugitive, however, was years old.

A 2014 photo of James King shows his injuries after he was beaten by law enforcement in Grand Rapids.

King was apparently near a gas station where the wanted 26-year-old fugitive was known to stop each afternoon for a soda, according to court records. 

One of the officers put King in a chokehold causing him to briefly black out, he says. When he came to, he bit down on the bicep that was choking him, prompting the officer to pummel King in the head to get him to release the bite, according to court records. 

Police officers who responded to scene demanded bystanders delete their videos of the incident due to concerns about revealing the identities of undercover FBI agents, according to the 6th Circuit decision.

But a video shot in the aftermath records one identified bystander says she pulled over her car as she witnessed the beating: "I was worried. They were literally pounding him in the head," she says. "They were pounding his head for no reason. They were being brutal." 

King was treated at a hospital and released, then charged with resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer. A jury acquitted him months later, but he sued the government and the officers under both Michigan law and federal civil rights law.

A screenshot of a video shot by a bystander shows James King handcuffed on the ground after his run-in with plainclothes officers in Grand Rapids on July 18, 2014.

Attorneys for the officers argued that they reasonably suspected King might be their fugitive and were justified in stopping him to investigate. 

King, who listened into Monday's arguments from the Institute for Justice's offices in Arlington, Virginia, said he just wants an opportunity to go to the legal system and have a decision on whether his constitutional rights were violated. 

"I am hurt and confused by what has happened to me, and I know that it continues to happen to others. I cannot imagine how exhausted entire communities must feel, having been plagued with this for decades," King said.

"I just want my day in court. That's all. And our civil servants being sheltered from accountability is fundamentally and morally wrong and I hope that my case makes a difference."

Oral arguments

The high court is considering whether the district court's dismissal of King’s claims against the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act bars his separate constitutional claims against the officers.

What's known as the "judgment bar" provision of the law prohibits lawsuits against government employees based on the same event that has been the subject of a final judgment under the statute. 

The 6th Circuit said the judgment bar didn't preclude King from pursuing his constitutional claims against the officers. That's because the lower court dismissed his FTCA claim for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction — that is, it never reached a decision on the merits of King's claims, the appellate court reasoned. 

Jaicomo argued that, under these circumstances, the failure of the claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act does not preclude the constitutional claims from going forward.

Huston argued that it does. He stressed that Congress wrote the judgment bar to prevent redundant litigation against government employees, "and that objective does not depend on whether the plaintiff's individual action is brought with the same case number or a different one."

"All the court has to do is say that the language of this statute is intentionally and exceptionally broad," he said in response to a question from Justice Sam Alito. 

"Congress imposed a complete bar to any individual action, and that precludes respondents from bringing a demand for relief ... regardless of whether it's completed separately from or together with the individual action."

Chief Justice John Roberts pointed out to Huston that the statute text refers to a bar to any "actions" and not to any "claims."

"It was and is very well-established that there's no bar with respect to claims in the same action," Roberts told Huston.

"If Congress were going to make such a dramatic departure from that rule, the obvious word to use is right there — it's 'claims.' And yet they didn't do that."

Justice Stephen Breyer said his problem with the scenario is that a plaintiff could win his or her case against the officers' employer — the government — and could then go on to sue the individual employees. 

"I think if there was one thing this statute was passed to stop, it was that the United States should take the liability and the employee wouldn't," Breyer said. 

Jaicomo responded that Congress intended to offer "parallel, complementary remedies" for plaintiffs through both constitutional claims and the Tort Claims Act. 

Justice Sonia Sotomayor indicated she had "practical difficulties" on the government’s position because they are essentially encouraging plaintiffs to file separate lawsuits for their different claims and hope that one is successful. 

"That seems somewhat time consuming," she said, adding that it could lead to inefficiencies on appeal.

Jaicomo agreed. He told the court a ruling for the government could result in an "enormous" increase in litigation.

"What will happen is instead of bringing claims efficiently in a single lawsuit like James King did, parties will essentially be required to bring as many lawsuits as they can and undertake whatever sorts of gamesmanship they can to keep both separate lawsuits pending," Jaicomo said after the hearing.