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Suing the Government

15 January, 2016 - 09:30

In the modern administrative state, the range of government activity is immense, and administrative agencies frequently get in the way of business enterprise. Often, bureaucratic involvement is wholly legitimate, compelled by law; sometimes, however, agencies or government officials may overstep their bounds, in a fit of zeal or spite. What recourse does the private individual or company have?

Mainly for historical reasons, it has always been more difficult to sue the government than to sue private individuals or corporations. For one thing, the government has long had recourse to the doctrine of sovereign immunity as a shield against lawsuits. Yet in 1976, Congress amended the Administrative Procedure Act to waive any federal claim to sovereign immunity in cases of injunctive or other nonmonetary relief. Earlier, in 1946, in the Federal Tort Claims Act, Congress had waived sovereign immunity of the federal government for most tort claims for money damages, although the act contains several exceptions for specific agencies (e.g., one cannot sue for injuries resulting from fiscal operations of the Treasury Department or for injuries stemming from activities of the military in wartime). The act also contains a major exception for claims “based upon [an official’s] exercise or performance or the failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty.” This exception prevents suits against parole boards for paroling dangerous criminals who then kill or maim in the course of another crime and suits against officials whose decision to ship explosive materials by public carrier leads to mass deaths and injuries following an explosion en route. 1

In recent years, the Supreme Court has been stripping away the traditional immunity enjoyed by many government officials against personal suits. Some government employees—judges, prosecutors, legislators, and the president, for example—have absolute immunity against suit for official actions. But many public administrators and government employees have at best a qualified immunity. Under a provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (so-called Section 1983 actions), state officials can be sued in federal court for money damages whenever “under color of any state law” they deprive anyone of his rights under the Constitution or federal law. In Bivens v. Six Unknown Federal Narcotics Agents, the Supreme Court held that federal agents may be sued for violating the plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights against an unlawful search of his home. 2 Subsequent cases have followed this logic to permit suits for violations of other constitutional provisions. This area of the law is in a state of flux, and it is likely to continue to evolve.

Sometimes damage is done to an individual or business because the government has given out erroneous information. For example, suppose that Charles, a bewildered, disabled navy employee, is receiving a federal disability annuity. Under the regulations, he would lose his pension if he took a job that paid him in each of two succeeding years more than 80 percent of what he earned in his old navy job. A few years later, Congress changed the law, making him ineligible if he earned more than 80 percent in anyone year. For many years, Charles earned considerably less than the ceiling amount. But then one year he got the opportunity to make some extra money. Not wishing to lose his pension, he called an employee relations specialist in the US Navy and asked how much he could earn and still keep his pension. The specialist gave him erroneous information over the telephone and then sent him an out-of-date form that said Charles could safely take on the extra work. Unfortunately, as it turned out, Charles did exceed the salary limit, and so the government cut off his pension during the time he earned too much. Charles sues to recover his lost pension. He argues that he relied to his detriment on false information supplied by the navy and that in fairness the government should be estopped from denying his claim.

Unfortunately for Charles, he will lose his case. In Office of Personnel Management v. Richmond, the Supreme Court reasoned that it would be unconstitutional to permit recovery. 3 The appropriations clause of Article I says that federal money can be paid out only through an appropriation made by law. The law prevented this particular payment to be made. If the court were to make an exception, it would permit executive officials in effect to make binding payments, even though unauthorized, simply by misrepresenting the facts. The harsh reality, therefore, is that mistakes of the government are generally held against the individual, not the government, unless the law specifically provides for recompense (as, for example, in the Federal Tort Claims Act just discussed).


After exhausting administrative remedies, there are numerous grounds for seeking judicial review of an agency’s order or of a final rule. While courts defer to agencies to some degree, an agency must follow its own rules, comply with the Administrative Procedure Act, act within the scope of its delegated authority, avoid acting in an arbitrary manner, and make final rules that are supported by substantial evidence.


  1. Why would US courts require that someone seeking judicial review of an agency order first exhaust administrative remedies?
  2. On the Internet, find a case where someone has successfully sued the US government under the Federal Tort Claims Act. What kind of case was it? Did the government argue sovereign immunity? Does sovereign immunity even make sense to you?