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Sovereign No More? When and How You Can Sue the Government

Town Law Publishing May 19, 2023

The concept of sovereign immunity—a legal protection that prevents a reigning authority from being sued without consent—stretches back to the British monarchy. Rooted in the age-old belief that "the King can do no wrong," this doctrine was intended to uphold the dignity of the monarchy and maintain the stability of the state.

Fast forward to the 21st century, sovereign immunity has found its way into the law of the United States. Though not explicitly laid out in the U.S. Constitution, this doctrine has been interpreted and applied by courts, extending similar protections to federal, state, and local governments in the country.

Yet, the sovereign shield is not impenetrable. There are instances where private citizens can sue the government for alleged wrongs—a prospect that seemed unthinkable a few centuries ago.

Penetrating the Armor: The Federal Tort Claims Act

In 1946, Congress passed the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), a groundbreaking legislation that marked a significant departure from absolute sovereign immunity. This Act allows private citizens to sue the federal government for damages arising from personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death caused by negligent or wrongful acts or omissions of federal employees acting within the scope of their employment.

The FTCA does not apply to every governmental action. There are exceptions for certain discretionary functions, military and foreign policy decisions, and acts or omissions of government employees that are not within the scope of their employment. Despite its limitations, the FTCA opened the door to legal recourse for citizens harmed by government negligence.

Suing State and Local Governments: Tort Claims Acts

Parallel to the FTCA at the federal level, individual states have passed their own Tort Claims Acts or Municipal Claims Acts that waive sovereign immunity in certain circumstances, allowing citizens to sue state and local governments for specific types of claims.

However, the scope of such laws varies widely across the states. Some states generously waive their immunity for a wide array of situations, while others offer a waiver only in very limited circumstances. Navigating these state-level variations can be a legal minefield, reinforcing the need for expert legal counsel when considering action against state or local authorities.

Civil Rights, The Government, and Section 1983

Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act, enacted after the Civil War, provides another avenue for suing the government, specifically for civil rights violations. This federal law grants individuals the right to sue local and state government entities and employees for constitutional and federal statutory violations.

Police misconduct, government discrimination, and abuse of power are often challenged under Section 1983. This provision has been pivotal in landmark cases, shedding light on systemic issues and spurring significant reforms in various sectors of government.

Contracts, Government Agencies, and Legal Redress

When it comes to contractual relationships, the government is treated much like any private party. A government entity that breaches a contract can be sued for damages, although specific procedural rules may apply.

In addition, administrative claims can be made directly against certain government agencies. For example, social security claims, veterans' benefits claims, and claims involving federal employment matters often have their own dedicated administrative processes within the relevant agencies.

The High Hurdles of Suing the Government

The possibility of suing the government brings along a set of unique challenges. Strict notice requirements, short time limits to file claims, caps on damages, and the need to navigate complex procedural rules can make these lawsuits daunting tasks.

However, despite the hurdles and the embedded tradition of sovereign immunity , the avenues that allow individuals to seek justice and compensation from governmental entities play an integral role in ensuring accountability and upholding democratic values. These provisions create a check on governmental powers, preventing abuses, and encouraging responsible and lawful behavior.

The Special Case of Discretionary Functions

Even though the law does provide for instances where one can sue the government, it is important to understand that some aspects of governmental actions remain shielded. The discretionary function exception is a crucial aspect of this.

Discretionary functions refer to acts that involve an element of judgment or choice and are grounded in considerations of public policy. For example, decisions made by a regulatory agency or a city planning department may fall into this category. Even if these decisions lead to adverse consequences, the discretionary function exception may prevent any resulting lawsuit.

In a society that places a high value on accountability and transparency, the discretionary function exception has been a subject of debate and controversy. It navigates a delicate balance - shielding government functions that need room for policy decisions and judgement, while not providing a blanket protection for all actions taken by the government.

A Look Ahead: The Future of Sovereign Immunity and Government Accountability

While it may seem that sovereign immunity is an antiquated concept, it still holds relevance in our modern legal system. It's a doctrine that balances the need for government accountability with the practical reality that a government constantly under threat of litigation might not function effectively.

However, societal changes and increasing demands for transparency and accountability are leading to questions about whether the current balance is the right one. Sovereign immunity waivers like the FTCA and Section 1983 represent substantial shifts towards greater government accountability. As the legal landscape continues to evolve, we may see more changes in the way sovereign immunity is interpreted and applied.

As citizens, it is essential to understand our rights, including the circumstances under which we can seek redress from our government. However, the path to doing so is laden with complexity and procedural nuances. The assistance of a skilled attorney can make the difference in successfully navigating these legal waters.

The tussle between sovereign immunity and the right to sue the government is a fascinating element of our legal system, a dance between the past and the present, the individual and the state, the ruler and the ruled. As we move forward, the choreography of this dance will inevitably continue to change, shaped by legislation, court decisions, and the evolving needs of our society.