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The victims of a constitutional violation by a federal agent have a right to recover damages against the official in federal court despite the absence of any statute conferring such a right. Such a cause of action may be defeated in a particular case, however, in two situations. The first is when defendants demonstrate special factors counseling hesitation in the absence of affirmative action by Congress. The second is when defendants show that Congress has provided an alternative remedy which it explicitly declared to be a substitute for recovery directly under the Constitution and viewed as equally effective.
Respondent administratrix, on behalf of her deceased son's estate, brought suit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana against federal prison officials. She alleged that her son, while a prisoner, suffered personal injuries from which he died because the officials violated his constitutional rights, including those under the Eighth Amendment, by failing to give him competent medical attention. Asserting jurisdiction under 28 USCS 1331(a), the mother claimed compensatory and punitive damages. The District Court recognized that the allegations pleaded a violation of the Eighth Amendment's proscription against infliction of cruel and unusual punishment giving rise to a cause of action under Bivens v Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents (1971) 403 US 388, 29 L Ed 2d 619, 91 S Ct 1999, in which it had been established that in some circumstances the victims of a violation of the Federal Constitution by a federal official have a right to recover damages against the official in federal court despite the absence of any statute conferring such a right. While the District Court determined that the decedent could have maintained the action if he had survived, it dismissed the complaint because the damages remedy as a matter of federal law was limited to that provided by Indiana's survivorship and wrongful death laws and, as the court construed such laws, the damages available to the inmate's estate failed to meet the $ 10,000 jurisdictional amount requirement in 1331(a). The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit agreed that an Eighth Amendment violation was pleaded and that a cause of action was stated under the Bivens decision. However, the court reversed the District Court's holding that 1331(a)'s jurisdictional amount requirement was not met, and ruled that 1331(a) was satisfied because of its view that the federal common law allowed survival of a "Bivens-type" action whenever a state survivorship statute would abate the action, provided the action was brought against defendants whose conduct resulted in death. Certiorari was granted.
Was a Bivens remedy available to respondent even though the allegations could also support a suit against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA)?
On appeal, the United States Supreme Court affirmed. Victims of a constitutional violation by a federal agent have a right to recovery against the official in federal court despite the absence of a statute conferring such right. The right was defeated when defendants showed factors counseling hesitation in the absence of affirmative action by Congress or show Congress provided an alternative remedy explicitly declared to be a substitute for recovery. Here, neither situation was obtained. Thus, respondent's son had an action under Federal Tort Claims Act and a Bivens action. Federal law created Bivens actions. Therefore, whether respondent's action survived her son's death was a question of federal law. The Court held that only a uniform federal rule of survivorship would suffice to redress the constitutional deprivation alleged and to protect against repetition of such conduct.