If the need for firm compliance with the Federal Tort Claims Act was ever in doubt, a recent opinion from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals illustrates how fatal non-compliance can be.

Under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”), a tort claim against the United States “shall be forever barred unless action is begun within six months after the date of mailing of notice of final denial of the claim by the agency to which it was presented.”  On March 16, 2009, the U.S. government sent a notice of final denial to Michelle Zander’s attorney after Zander had filed an administrative tort claim alleging that doctors at Maxwell Air Force Base had failed to notice a defect in her spine, resulting in paralysis.  However, Zander’s attorney had previously changed offices.  Someone at Zander’s attorney’s old office marked the letter “return to sender” and provided a forwarding address.  On April 8, 2009, the Government resent the letter to Zander’s attorney’s new address. 

Zander filed a malpractice lawsuit against the United States on October 8, 2009, six months from the date her attorney received the resent letter, but more than six months after the letter was initially sent.  Dismissing Zander’s case, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland found that for purposes of the limitations provision in the FTCA, the date of mailing was March 16, 2009, and that Zander’s Complaint was, therefore, untimely.

On appeal, Zander argued that treating April 8, 2009 as the date of mailing “best comports with the FTCA’s purpose of ensuring that claimants receive effective notice of the denial of their claims.”  Rejecting this argument, the 4th Circuit stated that it “improperly seeks enlargement of that consent to be sued which the Government, through Congress, has undertaken so carefully to limit.”  In conclusion, the Court held that “as March 16, 2009 was the date of mailing, Zander had up to and including September 16, 2009 to file suit in the district court in a timely manner.  Zander, however, did not file her suit until October 8, 2009.  As her action was untimely, the district court properly dismissed it.”

Michelle Zander v. United States is a powerful reminder that attorneys and injured parties must be very careful when asserting claims against the United States or its agencies.