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Sonczalla v. United States

United States District Court, N.D. West Virginia

July 23, 2019

JEFFREY A. SONCZALLA, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA; FEDERAL BUREAU OF PRISONS; DUTY OFFICER; UNKNOWN STAFF; DEREK MCINTYRE; JOHN GILLEY; and MATTHEW DOYLE, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING MOTION OF THE UNITED STATES TO LIMIT THE SCOPE OF DAMAGES [DKT. NO. 84], AND LIMITING THE SCOPE OF DAMAGES

          IRENE M. KEELEY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         The plaintiff, Jeffrey A. Sonczalla (“Sonczalla”), has pursued two lawsuits in this Court, one pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”), and another pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). Both arise out of the same facts and circumstances. Now pending is the motion of the United States to limit the scope of damages available to Sonczalla (Dkt. No. 84). Because this motion raised questions about Sonczalla's mental capacity, the Court appointed Tobi N. Gilbert, Psy.D., to conduct a neuropsychological evaluation (Dkt. Nos. 89, 92). Following receipt of Dr. Gilbert's expert report, the parties supplemented their arguments on the pending motion to limit damages (Dkt. No. 126). Briefing is now complete and the motion is ripe for decision. After careful consideration of the parties' arguments, for the reasons that follow, the Court GRANTS the United States' motion (Dkt. No. 84) and LIMITS the scope of Sonczalla's FTCA damages to $10, 000.00.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         On June 13, 2013, an inmate assaulted Sonczalla in his cell at the United States Penitentiary (“USP”) Hazelton, located in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia (Dkt. No. 5-1 at 2). When found nine hours later, Sonczalla was unconscious and covered in blood. Id. He was then transported to West Virginia University Hospitals (“WVUH”), where he was “diagnosed with a subdural hematoma, subarachnoid hemorrhage, intraparenchymal hemorrhage, as well as 6thand 7th rib fractures” (Dkt. No. 85 at 1-2). After remaining at WVUH for one month, Sonczalla was transferred to Monongalia General Hospital where he stayed for another month.

         In August 2013, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) transferred Sonczalla to its Federal Medical Center (“FMC”) in Springfield, Missouri. Id. There he participated in a number of neurological and psychological consultations, which detailed the effects of his injuries. Id. at 2-3. Based on this information, Sonczalla filed an administrative tort claim with the BOP, requesting $10, 000.00 in damages (Dkt. No. 84-1 at 31).

         B. Procedural Background

         After the BOP denied his administrative claim, Sonczalla filed a complaint in this Court on January 26, 2016, alleging causes of action pursuant to the FTCA and Bivens. On May 12, 2017, following nine extensions of time, the defendants, Tonya Brown-Stobbe, Captain, Duty Officer, BOP, D. McIntyre, Operation Lieutenant, United States, and Unknown Staff (collectively, “the Defendants”), [1]finally answered the complaint and moved to dismiss Sonczalla's Bivens claims or, alternatively, to bifurcate the case and temporarily stay his Bivens claims pending resolution of his FTCA claims (Dkt. Nos. 47, 48). After Magistrate Judge Aloi bifurcated the case and temporarily stayed Sonczalla's Bivens claims as requested (Dkt. No. 53), the parties proceeded through discovery in the FTCA case (Dkt. Nos. 58, 65).

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2675(b), on February 2, 2018, the United States moved to limit Sonczalla's FTCA damages to $10, 000.00, the amount requested in his administrative tort claim, (Dkt. No. 84). Because this motion raised questions about Sonczalla's mental capacity, the Court stayed the case and appointed Dr. Gilbert to conduct a neuropsychological evaluation (Dkt. Nos. 89, 92).

         At a status conference on December 19, 2018, Sonczalla's court-appointed counsel reported that Dr. Gilbert would soon complete and submit her expert report (Dkt. No. 113). Accordingly, the Court lifted the stay of Sonczalla's FTCA claims (Dkt. No. 115).[2] After finally receiving Dr. Gilbert's report on March 22, 2019, the Court held a further status conference on April 10, 2019, when it directed the parties to submit supplemental briefs on the pending motion to limits damages (Dkt. Nos. 125, 126).

         II. APPLICABLE LAW

         “The FTCA, 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b), 2671-2680, governs tort claims for injuries arising from the negligent conduct of federal employees acting within the scope of their employment.” Lopatina v. United States, 528 Fed.Appx. 352, 356 (4th Cir. 2013). “A plaintiff proceeding against the United States under the FTCA must first file an administrative claim with the relevant federal agency within two years after the injury.” Id. (citing 28 U.S.C. §§ 2401(b), 2675(a)).

         “The administrative claim must contain, among other things, a ‘sum certain' for damages.” Id. (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2675(b); 28 C.F.R. § 14.2(a); 39 C.F.R. § 912.5(a)). “The presentation of an administrative claim containing a sum-certain demand is a jurisdictional prerequisite to suit.” Id. (citing Kokotis v. U.S. Postal Serv., 223 F.3d 275, 278-79 (4th Cir. 2000)). “While a claim remains pending with the agency, a claimant may file an amended claim at any time to increase the amount of her sum-certain demand.” Id. (citing 28 C.F.R. § 14.2(c); 39 C.F.R. § 912.5(b)-(c)). “If the administrative claim is denied, or if six months elapse without agency action on the claim, a claimant may bring suit in federal court.” Id. (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2675(a)).

         “The amount of damages that may be recovered is presumptively limited to the ‘amount of the claim presented to the federal agency.'” Id. (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2675(b)). “A plaintiff may, however, recover a ‘sum in excess' of that claim ‘where the increased amount is based upon newly discovered evidence not reasonably discoverable at the time of presenting the claim to the federal agency, or upon allegation and proof of intervening facts, relating to the amount of the claim.'” Id. (quoting same). “Post-filing information that is merely ‘cumulative and confirmatory' of earlier evidence does not satisfy this exception.” Adkins v. United States, 990 F.Supp.2d 621, 623 (S.D. W.Va. 2014) (citing Kielwien v. United States, 540 F.2d 676, 680 (4th ...


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