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Schmidt v. Federal Correctional Institution, Fort Dix

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

September 26, 2018



          HONORABLE JEROME B. SIMANDLE, District Judge

         Plaintiff Steven Schmidt (hereinafter “Plaintiff”) brings this negligence action against Defendants Federal Correctional Institution, Fort Dix (hereinafter “FCI Fort Dix”), the United States of America, Anthony Hopson, and John Does 1-20 (fictious names) as a result of injuries sustained by Plaintiff while he was making a delivery to FCI Fort Dix. (Amended Complaint [Docket Item 16].) This matter comes before the Court by way of a motion filed by Defendants FCI Fort Dix and the United States of America (hereinafter “Federal Defendants”) seeking summary judgment as to Count One of the Amended Complaint. (See Motion for Summary Judgment [Docket Item 33].)[1] In response, Plaintiff filed a cross-motion for partial summary judgment, seeking to establish that Defendant Hopson is an employee of the United States for the purposes of the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b), (hereinafter “FTCA”). (See Cross Motion for Summary Judgment (hereinafter “Pl.'s Mot.”) [Docket Item 37].) The principal issue to be decided is whether a federal inmate is an “employee” for the purposes of FTCA, where he is incarcerated in a federal prison and is working as a part of the Federal Bureau of Prisons' (hereinafter “BOP”) inmate work program, acting within the scope of his duties interacting with civilians. For the reasons set forth below, the answer is yes. Accordingly, Federal Defendants' motion for summary judgment [Docket Item 33] will be denied and Plaintiff's cross-motion for partial summary judgment [Docket Item 37] will be granted. The Court finds as follows:[2]

         1. Factual and Procedural Background.[3]

         Plaintiff is a truck driver, and on January 27, 2014, at or around 8:30 a.m., Plaintiff delivered a load of refrigerated and dry food products to a warehouse operated by BOP at FCI Fort Dix. (See Transcript of Deposition of Steven Schmidt[4] (hereinafter “Pl.'s Dep.”) [Docket Item 33-5], 13:24-14:11, 18:4-6; 22:12-14; 29:3-7.) Plaintiff parked near the warehouse, unlocked his truck, and waited for the truck to be unloaded. (See id. at 32:1-19, 41:24-42:8.) While waiting, Plaintiff spoke with Mike Murray, a non-incarcerated BOP employee who supervised the operations of the warehouse, to get directions to his next delivery location. (See id.) While speaking to Mr. Murray, Plaintiff's left foot and leg were struck by a forklift operated by Defendant Hopson, a federal inmate who was assigned by BOP to operate the forklift as part of an inmate work program. (See id. at 42:20-21; Transcript of Deposition of Michael Murray[5] (hereinafter “Murray Dep.”) [Docket Item 33-4], 87:12-25, 88:14-22.) Plaintiff sustained serious injuries to his left leg and foot. (Id.) At the time of the incident, Defendant Hopson had been operating forklifts at FCI Fort Dix for approximately five (5) years. (See Transcript of Deposition of Anthony Hopson[6] (hereinafter “Hopson Dep.”) [Docket Item 33-6], 9:23-25, 49:12-14.) Prior to beginning his work assignment operating forklifts, BOP administered a training program to ensure that Defendant Hopson understood how to operate a forklift safely. (See Murray Dep. [Docket Item 33-4], 145:15-146:9.) Only minimum-security inmates were permitted to perform the work of a forklift operator at FCI Fort Dix, because such a job is done “outside the fences, ” meaning that the inmates have direct interaction with members of the public. (See id. at 145:4-7, 162:1-18.) In the event that no inmates were available to operate the warehouse forklifts, they would be operated by ordinary (non-incarcerated) BOP employees. (See id. at 150:8-10, 152:4-8.) Inmates assigned to operate the warehouse forklift receive an hourly wage, as well as vacation time and bonus pay at the discretion of the inmate's supervisor. (See 28 C.F.R. §§ 545.22-.27; BOP Inmate Performance Pay Hourly Rate [Docket Item 33-7].)

         2. On June 5, 2015, Plaintiff filed the instant action. (See Complaint [Docket Item 1].) Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint on January 27, 2016.[7] (See Amended Complaint [Docket Item 16].) Federal Defendants filed their Answer to Plaintiff's Amended Complaint on February 2, 2016. (See Answer [Docket Item 18].) Plaintiff's Amended Complaint alleges, inter alia, that “[o]n January 27, 2014, the fork lift [sic] operator on behalf of Defendant [FCI Fort Dix] . . . was operating a forklift on behalf of Defendant [FCI Fort Dix] in a negligent manner, striking Plaintiff [], running over and seriously injuring Plaintiff's left ankle.” (Amended Complaint [Docket Item 16], Count One, ¶ 4.) Additionally, Plaintiff alleges that “[t]he actions of the forklift operator were as an employee, servant or agent on behalf of [Federal Defendants] operating the property through the [BOP].” (Id. at Count One, ¶ 7.) Plaintiff is seeking damages from Federal Defendants for the injuries he sustained as a result of the allegedly negligent behavior of the forklift operator. (Id. at Count One, ¶ 8.)

         3. Federal Defendants filed the present motion for summary judgment, arguing that they are entitled to judgment in their favor as to Count One of the Amended Complaint, because the FTCA does not act as a waiver of sovereign immunity with respect to the negligent actions of federal inmates engaged in an inmate work program, such as Defendant Hopson. (See Fed. Defs.' Br. [Docket Item 33-1], 13-23.) In response, Plaintiff filed the present cross-motion for summary judgment as to Count One, seeking partial summary judgment for a determination, as a matter of law, that Defendant Hopson is regarded as an employee of the government under the statutory definition of “[e]mployee of the government” in the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2671. (See Pl.'s Mot. [Docket Item 37].) Federal Defendants filed a reply. (See Reply Memorandum of Law [Docket Item 38].) The issues of Defendant Hopson's negligence or Plaintiff's damages are not implicated or addressed in these cross-motions. The pending motions are now fully briefed and ripe for disposition. The Court will decide the motions without oral argument, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 78.

         4. Standard of Review.

         At summary judgment, the moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); accord Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once a properly supported motion for summary judgment is made, the burden shifts to the non-moving party, who must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986). In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court is required to examine the evidence in light most favorable to the non-moving party and resolve all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007); Halsey v. Pfeiffer, 750 F.3d 273, 287 (3d Cir. 2014).

         5. A factual dispute is material when it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law, ” and genuine when “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. The non-moving party “need not match, item for item, each piece of evidence proffered by the movant, ” but must present more than a “mere scintilla” of evidence on which a jury could reasonably find for the non-moving party. Boyle v. Cnty. of Allegheny, Pa., 139 F.3d 386, 393 (3d Cir. 1998) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).

         6. Discussion.

         This is the relatively rare case where there is no dispute as to the material facts regarding these competing motions for summary judgment. Plaintiff brings suit in Count One against Federal Defendants under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which holds the United States liable “only to the extent that in the same circumstances the applicable local law would hold ‘a private person' responsible.” Lomando v. United States, 667 F.3d 363, 373 (3d Cir. 2011).

Under the FTCA, the sovereign immunity of the United States is waived for certain torts committed by Federal employees. See 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b). A claim under the FTCA must be (1) against the United States, (2) for money damages, (3) “for injury or loss of property, or personal injury or death, ” (4) caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the United States, (5) “while acting within the scope of his office or employment, ” (6) “under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred.” Id.

Curbison v. U.S. Gov't of N.J., No. 05-5280, 2006 WL 3544560, at *8 (D.N.J. Dec. 7, 2006). The definition of “employee” under the FTCA is key to the resolution of this dispute about Defendant Hopson's capacity. By the terms of the FTCA itself,

“[e]mployee of the government” includes (1) officers or employees of any federal agency, members of the military or naval forces of the United States, members of the National Guard while engaged in training or duty . . ., and persons acting on behalf of a federal agency in an official capacity, temporarily or permanently in the service of the United States, whether with or without ...

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