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Ames v. United States

United States District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania

April 11, 2014

RALPH AMES, Plaintiff

Kosik Judge


Martin C. Carlson United States Magistrate Judge

I. Statement of Facts and of the Case

The plaintiff is a federal prisoner who was housed in the United States Penitentiary, Canaan. In his complaint the plaintiff brought an action the United States of America pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”) 28 U.S.C. § 2401, et seq. and 28 U.S.C. § 2675, et seq. The plaintiff’s pro se complaint recited that, in June of 2011, the prison served inmates chicken fajitas. (Doc. 1.) According to the plaintiff, the chicken was bad, and was tainted with salmonella bacteria. (Id.) Consequently, the plaintiff contracted food poisoning, and suffered excruciating pain and symptoms which included headaches, diarrhea, abdominal pains, nausea, chills, vomiting, inability to eat and profuse sweating. (Id.) Alleging negligence on the part of the prison in the preparation and service of this food, the plaintiff sought damages from the defendant.

This is one of a number of related actions in which federal inmates have sued the United States of America, alleging injuries stemming from the consumption of food contaminated with salmonella that was served at the United States Penitentiary, Canaan. We are overseeing coordinated pre-trial management of these cases and we ordered all parties to participate in mandatory mediation of the plaintiff’s claims. As part of this mediation program it was reported that this case had settled, and the case was, therefore, dismissed. (Docs. 13-14.)

On March 24, 2014, the plaintiff filed a motion to enforce settlement, (Doc. 23.), alleging that this settlement has not been fully consummated in that he had not received his payment under the settlement agreement. Accordingly, in order to address this concern we ordered the defendant to file a response to this pleading, either clarifying the status of efforts to consummate the settlement, or otherwise responding to the plaintiff’s pleadings. (Doc. 24.)

The defendant has now filed a response, (Doc. 25.), which explains that, while a full payment was made to the plaintiff by the U.S. Treasury pursuant to this settlement agreement, the Treasury, which is not a party to this case, also has statutory authority to collect delinquent non-tax debts owed to the federal government by offsetting payments made by other federal agencies. 31 U.S.C. § 3716; 31 C.F.R. §285.5(a)(1). According to the defendant, these offsets can occur for child support, federal taxes, state taxes, restitution or any other delinquent amount owed to the federal, state, or local government and payments made from the Judgment Fund to satisfy awards are statutorily required to be offset pursuant to 31 U.S.C. § 3728 and 31 U.S.C. § 3716. Therefore, absent some explicit statutory language to the contrary, there is no exception to this legal requirement that these payments be offset.

In this case, it appears that, pursuant to the legally-mandated Treasury offset program, the Treasury applied these settlement funds against some other outstanding debt owed by the plaintiff. The defendant also notes that, due to privacy considerations, the Treasury cannot disclose the precise nature of these offset obligations to the defendant. However, inmate-plaintiffs who believe that they are aggrieved by this Treasury offset may reach out directly to the Treasury at (800) 304-3107. In the event the inmate is unable to contact the Judgment Fund by telephone, the address to contact the judgment fund is: Judgment Fund Branch, Financial Management Service, U.S. Department of Treasury, 3700 East West Highway, Room 6E15Hyattsville, Maryland 20782.

In light of this response, for the reasons set forth below, it is recommended that the motion to enforce should be DENIED since the defendant has substantially complied with the terms of the agreement, but under other provisions of federal law the plaintiff’s settlement payment has been applied to the plaintiff’s outstanding, preexisting financial obligations.

II. Discussion

While couched as a request to enforce a settlement in this case, the prisoner-plaintiff’s pleading in fact calls upon us to consider the relationship between this settlement and other provisions of law that oblige the United States Treasury to collect sums owed by persons like the plaintiff. Here the defendant initially fulfilled its obligations to the plaintiff under this settlement agreement by seeking and securing the issuance of a settlement payment to the plaintiff’s benefit. However, by statute, the Treasury was then required to apply that payment as an offset against a pre-existing debt of the plaintiff’s. By applying this payment as an offset the Treasury has complied with law; the plaintiff has benefitted from his settlement agreement bargain, in that his pre-existing and outstanding debts have been reduced; and third parties who were owed moneys by the prisoner-plaintiff, debts that may include child support and restitution, have also directly benefitted.

The nature of this offset program has been aptly described in the following terms:

The practice of withholding federal payment in satisfaction of a debt is known as an administrative offset.” Reeves v. Astrue, 526 F.3d 732, 738 n. 3 (11th Cir.), petition for cert. filed (U.S. Aug. 1, 2008) (No. 08-5605). The Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1982, 31 U.S.C. §§ 3701 et seq., authorizes the Treasury Department “to collect non-tax debts by withholding funds paid out by other federal agencies.” Reeves, 526 F.3d at 738 n. 3; see 31 U.S.C. § 3716(a); 31 C.F.R. § 285.5. Pursuant to the TOP, any federal agency with a claim against the debtor, after notifying the debtor that the debt is subject to administrative offset and providing an opportunity to dispute the debt or make arrangements to pay it, may collect the debt by administrative offset. See 31 U.S.C. ยง 3716(a), (c)(6). In order to do so, the creditor agency must certify to Treasury that the debt is eligible for ...

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