High court ruling protects feds from racketeering lawsuits

Supreme Court says allowing a Wyoming rancher to sue six federal employees personally would run the "risk of raising a tide of suits" against civil servants.

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that six Bureau of Land Management employees are not subject to individual damage claims related to actions they took as part of their official duties.

In a 7-2 decision written by Justice David Souter, the high court ruled that a Wyoming rancher cannot sue the six employees individually for potential violations of his constitutional rights and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

The court heard oral arguments in the case, Wilkie v. Robbins, in March. The rancher, Harvey Frank Robbins, alleged that the BLM officers retaliated against him after he refused to give the agency access to his land. He further alleged that the officers violated the RICO Act and his Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights as recognized in Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents by revoking his grazing permits and extorting him to gain access.

The court held that administrative and judicial remedies already exist to address the various injuries that Robbins alleged. The court further held that Robbins could not bring a RICO claim against the officials in their personal capacities because the 1946 Hobbs Anti-Racketeering Act, which provides the definition of illegal racketeering activity included in RICO, does not apply when the government is the intended beneficiary of the alleged extortion.

Robbins originally filed suit against the six BLM employees in 1998. After a series of failed efforts to have the suit dismissed in the U.S. District Court in Wyoming and the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, government officials then appealed to the Supreme Court.

The dispute goes back to 1994, when Robbins purchased a guest ranch in Wyoming, not knowing that the BLM, which controls the federal land adjoining the ranch, had granted the previous owner a right of way over federal land in exchange for an easement. Though the previous owner had properly recorded the right of way, BLM had not yet recorded the easement when Robbins purchased the ranch. When a BLM employee asked Robbins to reinstate the easement without offering any compensation, Robbins declined.

Robbins alleged that a series of retaliatory acts followed. He argued that the employees brought false criminal charges against him, revoked his grazing and recreational use permits and trespassed on his property.

Based on Robbins' retaliatory claims, the court's majority opinion acknowledged that the case holds "competing arguments," largely because current law requires Robbins to pursue individual remedies for each retaliatory act. Conversely, the court noted that like other property owners, the government has a right to engage in "hard bargaining."

"The point here is not to deny that government employees sometimes overreach, for of course they do, and they may have done so here if all the allegations are true," the decision stated. "The point is the reasonable fear that a general Bivens cure would be worse than the disease."

To that end, the decision held that supporting Robbins' arguments could create a precedent that would flood the legal system with similar lawsuits by enabling private individuals to claim that anything a government employee does under color of law is retaliation, including necessary actions performed by agents of the Internal Revenue Service and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The court ruled that, like Robbins' case, the remedy for damages that are the result of actions by government employees who push too hard for the government's benefit may come better, if at all, through legislation.

"Congress is in a far better position than a court to evaluate the impact of a new species of litigation against those who act on the public's behalf," Souter wrote. "And Congress can tailor any remedy to the problem perceived, thus lessening the risk of raising a tide of suits threatening legitimate initiative on part of the government's employees."