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Watson v. United States

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

July 31, 2017

DAVINO WATSON, Plaintiff-Appellant-Cross-Appellee,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant-Appellee-Cross-Appellant, JUAN ESTRADA, MICHAEL ORTIZ, TIMOTHY GUNTHER, JOHN DOES, 1-8, Defendants.

          Argued: April 6, 2017

         Davino Watson, a United States citizen, was improperly held in immigration detention for more than three years because the government mistakenly believed that he was a deportable alien. He sued under the Federal Tort Claims Act in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Weinstein, J.), asserting four claims: (1) false imprisonment, (2) malicious prosecution, (3) negligent investigation into his citizenship status, and (4) negligent failure to issue a certificate of citizenship until years after his release. The district court found the government liable to Watson on the false imprisonment claim, dismissed the malicious prosecution claim and negligent investigation claim on motion, and entered judgment for the government on the negligent delay claim post-trial.

         We reverse the judgment with respect to the false imprisonment claim, which is time-barred. We affirm the judgment in all other respects. The malicious prosecution claim fails because the government did not act with malice, the negligent investigation claim fails for lack of a private analogue, and the negligent delay claim fails because Watson suffered no cognizable damages.

         Chief Judge Katzmann concurs in part and dissents in part in a separate opinion.

          MARK A. FLESSNER (Robert J. Burns on the brief), Holland & Knight LLP, Chicago, IL, for Plaintiff-Appellant-Cross-Appellee Davino Watson.

          JOSEPH A. MARUTOLLO (Varuni Nelson, James R. Cho, and Elliot M. Schachner on the brief), for Robert L. Capers, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Brooklyn, NY, for Defendant-Appellee-Cross-Appellant United States of America.

          Trina Realmuto, National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, Boston, MA; Mary Kenney, American Immigration Council, Washington, DC, for amici curiae National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild; American Immigration Council, in support of Davino Watson.

          Before: KATZMANN, Chief Judge, JACOBS, and LIVINGSTON, Circuit Judges.

          JACOBS, Circuit Judge.

         Davino Watson, a United States citizen, was held in immigration custody for three-and-a-half years on the mistaken belief that he was a deportable alien. He sued under the Federal Tort Claims Act (the "FTCA") in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Weinstein, J.), asserting false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, and two negligence claims. One negligence claim is that immigration officials conducted a negligent investigation into Watson's citizenship status; the other is that the government negligently failed to deliver a certificate of citizenship to Watson in a timely manner.[1]

         After a bench trial, the district court found the government liable on the false imprisonment claim, though the district court limited damages to the first twenty-seven days of Watson's detention. The district court had previously dismissed on motion the malicious prosecution claim as barred by 28 U.S.C. § 2680(h), as well as the negligent investigation claim for want of a state-law analogue. After trial, the district court entered judgment against Watson on his claim that the government negligently delayed delivery of his certificate of citizenship, concluding that Watson had not demonstrated negligence and had suffered no damages.

         Watson appeals the adverse rulings on his malicious prosecution claim and both negligence claims, and also appeals the district court's decision to limit the government's damages on the false imprisonment claim. The government cross-appeals the district court's judgment on the false imprisonment claim, contending that the claim is time-barred by the FTCA's two-year statute of limitations.

         It is arresting and disturbing that an American citizen was detained for years in immigration proceedings while facing deportation, but Watson's claims for damages are foreclosed by precedent. Watson's false imprisonment claim is untimely, and we reverse the judgment to that extent. We otherwise affirm. Watson's malicious prosecution claim fails because no government official acted with malice; his negligent investigation claim fails because there is no analogous tort under New York law, as required by the FTCA; and his claim that the government negligently delayed delivery of his certificate of citizenship fails because Watson did not suffer cognizable damages.

         In sum, we reverse the judgment of the district court on the false imprisonment claim, affirm the judgment in all other respects, and dismiss as moot Watson's appeal from the limitation on damages for false imprisonment.

         I

         At the time of his birth in Jamaica, neither of Watson's parents were U.S. citizens. When Watson was thirteen years old in 1998, he entered the United States as a lawful permanent resident to live with his father, who was then a lawful permanent resident of the United States. Watson's father was naturalized on September 17, 2002, and there is no longer any dispute that Watson automatically became a U.S. citizen at the same time as his father. However, for most of the relevant period, the government had reason to believe that Watson was not a U.S. citizen. As will be shown, that misunderstanding resulted in part from the fact that Watson's father (Hopeton Ulando Watson) and his mother (Dorette McFarlane) never married. The relevant statutes governing Watson's citizenship status are set out in the margin.[2]

         A

         In 2007, Watson pleaded guilty in New York state court to selling cocaine. While serving his prison sentence, Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("ICE") agents investigated Watson's citizenship status to determine whether he was deportable.

         The investigation was beset by errors. From the beginning, ICE agents were presented with information strongly suggesting that Watson was a citizen based on his father's naturalization, but the agents did not competently pursue the leads. For example, during Watson's first interview with ICE, he claimed U.S. citizenship, told the ICE agents the names of his father and step-mother, and gave their telephone number to assist the investigation. The ICE agents did not call the telephone number, despite writing a note to do so in order "to verify status." App'x at 206, 500. There may be reason to suspect a proffered phone number, but the call was never made, even though Watson's pre-sentencing report, a copy of which ICE received, indicated that he was a U.S. citizen, listed the names of his father and step-mother, and gave the same phone number that Watson had provided.

         Although they did not call his father and step-mother, ICE agents did attempt to learn more about them as part of the investigation into Watson's citizenship. Importantly, Watson's father's name is "Hopeton Ulando Watson" and his step-mother's name is "Clare Watson."[3] When ICE agents searched an ICE database for "Hopeton Watson" and "Clare Watson, " they found a "Hopeton Livingston Watson" and a "Calrie Watson." Because these two persons were born in Jamaica and lived near New York, ICE agents assumed that they were Watson's parents.

         The agents might be forgiven for making that assumption: "Hopeton" might seem like an unusual name, and "Calrie" is within a typo of "Clare." But the ICE agents also ignored or failed to recognize flags that these people were not related to Watson. Aside from the fact that Hopeton Livingston Watson had the wrong middle name, his file also reflected that he lived in Connecticut (rather than New York), did not have a child named Davino, and became a lawful permanent resident three years after the date of Davino Watson's lawful permanent residency. Evidently, the ICE officers also failed to look at the affidavit that Watson's actual father (Hopeton Ulando Watson) had submitted in connection with Davino's application for legal permanent residency in 1998. That affidavit contained Hopeton Ulando Watson's date of birth, alien number, and social security number, none of which matched the corresponding file data for Hopeton Livingston Watson.

         Nonetheless, the government assumed that Hopeton Livingston Watson was Davino's father. And since Hopeton Livingston Watson was not a citizen, ICE agents believed that Watson similarly lacked citizenship and was subject to deportation.

         A supervisory ICE officer, relying on this conclusion without undertaking more investigation, drafted a "Notice to Appear, " which initiates deportation proceedings. In the words of the district court, another supervisory officer "mindlessly signed" the Notice to Appear and forwarded it to the ICE office responsible for taking Watson into custody.

         B

         After Watson completed his state prison sentence, he was arrested by ICE agents, and placed in custody despite Watson's insistence that he was a citizen. Watson's Notice to Appear was formally filed nineteen days later, and he first appeared before an immigration judge about one month afterward.

         C

         Watson actively sought to prove his citizenship throughout his immigration detention. Early on, he applied to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services ("USCIS") for a certificate of citizenship (a document that evidences the bearer's U.S. citizenship). USCIS denied his request on the basis of In re Hines, 24 I. & N. Dec. 544 (BIA 2008), decided by the Board of Immigration Appeals ("BIA") twenty-eight days after Watson was detained.

         Hines dealt with the requisites of "legitimation" under Jamaican law. That issue was critical to Watson because he could derive citizenship from his father only if he had been "legitimated" by his father. See 8 U.S.C. §§ 1101(c)(1), 1431(a). In Hines, the BIA stated that it "will deem a child born out of wedlock in Jamaica to have had his or her paternity established 'by legitimation' only upon proof that the child's parents married at some time after the child's birth." 24 I. & N. Dec. at 548. Because Watson's parents never married, he was not deemed to have been "legitimated, " and consequently was ineligible for derivative citizenship under the BIA's then-current interpretation of Jamaican law. Ultimately, Hines led to the denial of Watson's application for a certificate of citizenship by USCIS, the issuance of an order of removal by the immigration judge, and the affirmance of Watson's order of removal by the BIA.

         D

         In a prior appeal, Watson petitioned this Court to review the immigration judge's order of removal. We denied his petition, but in so doing we declined to consider whether the BIA correctly concluded that Watson had not been "legitimated;" rather, we relied on the BIA's alternative ruling that Watson had not produced evidence showing that his father had legal custody over him, which would preclude derivative citizenship regardless of legitimation. See 8 U.S.C. § 1431(a)(3). However, after Watson filed an emergency petition in this Court, we recalled our mandate and reinstated Watson's original petition. We then asked the BIA to clarify and justify its "legitimation" analysis. Watson v. Holder, 643 F.3d 367 (2d Cir. 2011) (per curiam).

         After our remand, ICE apparently began to suspect that Hines might not apply to Watson, and that Watson might be a U.S. citizen under the BIA's pre-Hines precedent. The government's precise views on the application of Hines to Watson's case are somewhat obscure.[4] In any event, ICE released Watson in November 2011 into rural Alabama (where he knew nobody), without money, and without being told the reason for his release. Removal proceedings technically continued for more than a year, ending at last when the BIA, responding to this Court's remand, issued an unpublished decision concluding that Hines did not apply to Watson's case. The BIA determined that Watson "was legitimated" under Jamaican law, deduced that Watson "derived citizenship through his father's naturalization, " and accordingly terminated Watson's removal proceedings. App'x at 457.

         Watson later moved to reopen his application for a certificate of citizenship, which he received after a long delay. The certificate states that Watson has been a citizen since the date of his father's naturalization.

         E

         Watson filed an administrative claim for damages with DHS on October 30, 2013, which was denied approximately one year later. He initiated this lawsuit in the Eastern District of New York on October 31, 2014.

         II

         The district court found the government liable to Watson on his claim of false imprisonment. The government's argument that the claim was untimely was rejected on alternative grounds. First, the court ruled that the statute of limitations for the false imprisonment did not begin to run until the day Watson received his certificate of citizenship (November 26, 2013). Second, even if Watson's claims were filed after the limitations period had expired, the district court ruled that Watson would be entitled to equitable tolling until the day that Watson was informed by his lawyer of his right to bring an FTCA claim (July 31, 2014). Since both events post-dated the filing of Watson's administrative claim, the false imprisonment claim would be timely.

         We disagree. Watson's false imprisonment claim is untimely, and the judgment of the district court is reversed to the extent it held the government liable on Watson's false imprisonment claim.

         A

         Watson brought his claim pursuant to the FTCA, which imposes a two-year statute of limitations:

A tort claim against the United States shall be forever barred unless it is presented in writing to the appropriate Federal agency within two years ...

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