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Stephenson v. United States

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia

November 28, 2017

AMANDA GAIL STEPHENSON, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          David A. Faber Senior United States District Judge

         Pending before the court is defendant's motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. ECF No. 21.[1] This court does not have subject matter jurisdiction over plaintiff's claims because each falls within the discretionary function exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act. Therefore, defendant's motion is GRANTED and the court DISMISSES plaintiff's action with prejudice.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         On February 17, 2014, Ms. Stephenson went to the Post Office to mail a package. See Complaint. That day was Presidents' Day, a federal holiday, and all retail windows were closed. See id. At this Post Office, the public is permitted access to post office boxes twenty-four hours a day, every day, including federal holidays. Id.

         Plaintiff parked her car in the Post Office's parking lot, removed her package from the car, and walked down the sidewalk running parallel to the Post Office. See id. This sidewalk was owned by the Post Office. When she reached the corner of the building, she turned toward the main entrance of the Post Office and fell on ice. See id. Plaintiff claims that snow had been removed from the sidewalk and placed in a pile between the sidewalk and the building. See id. Plaintiff states that water from the melted snow must have run across the sidewalk and frozen as temperatures dropped so that “wide path of ice” crossed the sidewalk. Id. This buildup of ice caused plaintiff to slip and fall onto the concrete sidewalk. Id.

         Plaintiff contends that defendant negligently failed to keep the sidewalk “clear and free of ice, ” and that defendant should have “prevented snow from melting and running across the sidewalk or, in the alternative, to have placed salt or ice melt . . . on the area of the sidewalk . . . so that this plaintiff and members of the public would not be unreasonably exposed to the danger of falling.” Id. According to plaintiff, defendant's negligence directly and proximately resulted in her physical and emotional injuries. See id. Plaintiff seeks $6, 801.37 in medical expenses, $10, 000.00 in lost income, and $20, 000.00 in pain and suffering. See id.

         Plaintiff has exhausted her administrative remedies pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”), 28 U.S.C. § 1346 et seq., and her complaint was timely filed. Plaintiff filed her administrative claim on January 29, 2016, before the statute of limitations expired. The administrative claim was denied on August 18, 2016. Plaintiff filed her Complaint with this court on December 8, 2016. ECF No. 1.

         On July 7, 2017, the United States filed its Motion to Dismiss and accompanying memorandum, ECF Nos. 21-22.[2] The United States contends that the discretionary function exception to the FTCA bars plaintiff's suit because plaintiff does not identify any mandatory directives regarding 1) giving patrons twenty-four hour access to the post office boxes, 2) snow removal, and 3) providing for re-inspection and cleaning. See ECF 22. Therefore, the United States asks the court to dismiss this case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) asks whether a court has the ability to hear and adjudicate the claims brought before it. Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction and can act only in those specific instances authorized by Congress. Bowman v. White, 388 F.2d 756, 760 (4th Cir. 1968).

         The plaintiff bears the burden of proving the existence of subject matter jurisdiction. Evans v. B.F. Perkins Co., 166 F.3d 642, 647 (4th Cir. 1999). Further, a party who brings an action against the United States pursuant to the FTCA “bears the burden of pointing to . . . an unequivocal waiver of immunity.” Williams v. United States, 50 F.3d 299, 304 (4th Cir. 1995) (quoting Holloman v. Watt, 708 F.2d 1399, 1401 (9th Cir. 1983)).

         The court notes that its analysis of defendant's motion is not limited to the evidence presented by the parties in their pleadings. When considering a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1), “the court may consider the evidence beyond the scope of the pleadings to resolve factual disputes concerning jurisdiction.” Williams, 50 F.3d at 304 (citing 2A James W. Moore, Moore's Federal Practice ¶ 12.07 at 12-49-12-50 (2d ed. 1994)); see also S.R.P. v. United States, 676 F.3d 329, 332 (3d. Cir. 2012) (“Because the Government's motion presented a factual challenge to subject matter jurisdiction, the District Court was not confined to the allegations in [plaintiff's] complaint, and was entitled to independently evaluate the evidence to resolve disputes over jurisdictional facts.”)(internal citations omitted).

         III. APPLICABLE LAW

         Fundamentally, federal courts do not have jurisdiction over actions against the United States unless Congress has expressly waived the United States' sovereign immunity. United States v. Sherwood, 312 U.S. 584, 586 (1941); Dalehite v. United States, 346 U.S. 15, 30 (1953) (“[N]o action lies against the United States unless the legislature has authorized it.”). The FTCA, however, provides a limited waiver of the United States' sovereign immunity in actions arising from personal injuries caused by government employees acting within the scope of their employment. See 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b), § 2671, et seq. Under these circumstances, “the Government will accept liability in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual would have under like circumstances.” Strand v. United States, 233 F.Supp.3d 446, 455 (D. ...


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