United States v Wong

Wong sued the government alleging false imprisonment. She moved to add a claim under the federal tort Claims Act after her administrative claim was denied. The district court approved the amendment after the Act’s six month limitations period ran ruling equitable tolling applied. In a jointly argued case, a claimant filed an administrative claim after the two year limitation period and argued equitable tolling should apply. In that case, the district court dismissed ruling tolling was unavailable. The 9th Circuit eventually held tolling is available in both cases. Resolving a circuit split on whether tolling applies to the two deadlines, the Court, 5-4, affirmed. The majority held that, under the general presumption that statutes of limitations in sovereign immunity waiver statutes are subject to tolling, the Act does not have a clear statement that the time limits are jurisdictional noting there is not statement about the jurisdiction of the court in the limitations portion and the grant of jurisdiction is separate form the limitations period. The majority rejected the government’s arguments for a different result holding the phrase “shall forever be barred” is not jurisdictional except for one statute which was analyzed under a different interpretive regime and the rejection of tolling as to that statute was not based on the phrase and the former approach of strictly construing sovereign immunity waivers no longer applies to tolling issues. The dissent argued that the phrase “shall be forever barred” is jurisdictional as declared in 1883 and reaffirmed in many cases thereafter. It also argued that the limitations language is not directed at claimants but at the claim reinforcing the conclusion that tolling is not available.