The Civil Division of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Wisconsin represents the interests of the federal government in civil litigation involving the United States, its departments and agencies, and federal employees. Civil Division Assistant United States Attorneys handle cases in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and the District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin and occasionally appear in cases pending in Wisconsin Circuit Courts.
Civil cases represent a significant portion of the caseload of the United States Attorney’s Office and cover a broad and diverse subject matter. The Civil Division affirmatively litigates cases related to health care fraud; government contract fraud; environmental enforcement; civil rights enforcement, including combatting discrimination based on race, color, sex (pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity), familial status, religion, national origin, disability, military service, and citizenship; federal mortgage foreclosures; Internal Revenue Service summons enforcement; Medical Care Recovery Act (subrogation); collection of restitution for crime victims; and collection of civil debts.
All lawsuits that are filed against the government must be defended, and the Civil Division defends the interests of the federal government in the lawsuits filed in the Eastern District of Wisconsin. These cases include litigation related to bankruptcy, torts, employment discrimination, Freedom of Information Act/Privacy Act, third party subpoenas issued against federal agencies and employees, immigration, state mortgage foreclosure, and Social Security disability.
Affirmative Civil Enforcement
Affirmative Civil Enforcement (“ACE”) represents the efforts of law enforcement to pursue the civil aspects of any case in which there has been a false or fraudulent claim presented, a false statement made to the United States, or where the public health, welfare, or safety has been threatened. These cases may be brought instead of, or in addition to, criminal prosecution. ACE encompasses a broad range of remedies, including civil actions to obtain a money judgment in favor of the United States for recovery of monies wrongfully taken from the government, imposition of treble damages and penalties, injunctive relief, and seizures.
ACE attorneys work with Criminal Division Assistant United States Attorneys and federal, state and local agencies to share information and coordinate major health care fraud cases. To facilitate the coordination of law enforcement efforts, the Civil Division Assistant United States Attorneys work together with the Criminal Division Assistant United States Attorneys and other law enforcement agencies to maximize resources and effectively target wrongdoers.
ACE attorneys also are active in health care fraud task forces to improve coordination among the various agencies involved in the fight against health care fraud. Task force meetings serve as forums to discuss various health care fraud issues.
Medical Care Recovery Act
The Medical Care Recovery Act established the right of the United States to recover from a third person who caused injury or illness to a person that resulted in hospital or medical care being furnished by the government for hospital, medical, surgical, or dental care and treatment. In 2010, over two million dollars was collected under the Medical Care Recovery Act.
Federal law protects against discrimination in voting, public accommodations and facilities, public schools, employment, housing, credit, and in all programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin in public facilities, such as parks, libraries, auditoriums, and prisons.
Americans With Disabilities Act
In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) was enacted to even the playing field for this segment of our society. The Department of Justice is tasked with enforcing those portions of the ADA related to accessibility of facilities and programs.
Fair Housing Act
The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination by landlords, real estate companies, banks, or other lending institutions and homeowners insurance companies based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, or disability. If you believe that you have been a victim of an illegal housing practice, you may file a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) or file a lawsuit in federal or state court. The Department of Justice brings suits on behalf of individuals based on referrals from HUD.
Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994
The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 was enacted to encourage noncareer service in the uniformed services by, among other things, minimizing or eliminating the disadvantages to civilian careers that can result from such service. USERRA specifically protects veterans and reserve component members from employment discrimination and provides reemployment with a pre-service employer following qualifying military service.
Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act
The Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act authorizes the enforcement of the constitutional and federal statutory rights of persons confined to state and local institutions. These include facilities for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, nursing homes, prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities. The investigations and litigation focus on a broad range of issues depending on the type of institution and the nature of alleged unconstitutional conditions. Issues may include abuse, crowding, medical and mental health care, fire safety, sanitation, security, adequacy of treatment, and education.
Environmental Enforcement Litigation
In conjunction with the Energy and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice, the Civil Division conducts suits under the Clear Air Act, the Clear Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Oil Pollution Act, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (“CERCLA”), the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Toxic Substances Control Act. Relief sought may include injunctive actions to remedy environmental damage, cost recovery actions requiring responsible parties to pay the cost of government cleanup, and civil penalty actions to deter polluters from violating the law.
Collection of Civil Debts
The Civil Division is also responsible for collecting civil debts under the Federal Debt Collection Procedures Act that are owed the United States. The majority of the civil collection work involves filing suit to obtain judgments on defaulted government loans such as student loans, farm loans or mortgages guaranteed by a federal agency, and then collecting those judgments. The civil collection workload also includes judgments and settlements owed to the United States as a result of successful ACE and federal foreclosure cases. Remedies provided by the Federal Debt Collection Procedures Act include the garnishment of wages, seizure of property, and fraudulent transaction actions.
Internal Revenue Service Summons Enforcement
The United States Code provides that the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) has the power to administratively summon persons to produce “books, papers, records or other data” and to give testimony for the purpose of ascertaining the correctness of any return, taking a return where none has been made, determining the liability of any person for any internal revenue tax, collecting any liability for any internal revenue tax, and inquiring into any offense connected with the administration or enforcement of the internal revenue laws. The Civil Division represents the IRS in these matters and will commence a summons enforcement action by filing a petition to enforce. Summons enforcement proceedings are designed to be “summary” in nature and limited to the determination of the IRS’ right to obtain needed information.
Social Security Act Litigation
Applicants for Social Security benefits are entitled to seek review in federal district court following a denial of benefits by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). These cases involve a review of the administrative record compiled by the SSA and are resolved through cross-motions for summary judgment without trial.
Defending Tort Litigation
Defending tort claims filed against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”) also encompass a significant portion of the Civil Division's caseload. The FTCA is a waiver of the sovereign immunity of the United States for tort claims based on the acts or omissions of federal employees within the scope of their employment.
The FTCA provides for liability in the same manner as private individuals under like circumstances in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred. The tort cases typically defended by Civil Division attorneys include personal injury claims (e.g., a slip and fall in a federal building), medical malpractice claims arising out of treatment at Veterans Administration hospitals or other federally-supported health facilities, and motor vehicle accidents involving a federal employee.
Standard Form 95 is used to present claims under the FTCA. These claims must be presented to the federal agency whose employee's conduct gave rise to the injury.
When representation is authorized by the Department of Justice, the Civil Division also defends individual federal law enforcement officers and employees in litigation that alleges that an employee acting within the scope of his or her federal employment violated the Constitution.
The Civil Division defends lawsuits alleging discrimination in employment filed by federal employees or applicants for employment on the bases of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, or age.
The United States Attorney’s Office is not authorized to provide legal assistance to private citizens or to represent them. However, if you believe that you have been a victim of employment discrimination, you should contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) to find out whether you may file a charge. The EEOC is the federal agency responsible for investigating individual charges of discrimination under Title VII and is the federal agency responsible for litigating charges filed against private employers. Employees or applicants who believe that they have been discriminated against by a federal agency must file a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Office of that particular federal agency.
Defense of Third Party Subpoenas Against Federal Agencies and Employees
Civil Division Assistant United States Attorneys represent federal government employees and agencies when they are served by third parties with subpoenas requesting oral testimony and/or production of physical evidence related to their federal duties. These cases may involve important issues such as federal privileges, sovereign immunity, federal supremacy, and preservation of agency resources. Title 5, United States Code, Section 301 provides that “[t]he head of an Executive department or military department may prescribe regulations for the government of his department, the conduct of its employees, the distribution and performance of its business, and the custody, use, and preservation of its records, papers, and property.” The regulations came under scrutiny by the Supreme Court in United States ex rel. Toughy v. Ragen, 340 U.S. 462 (1951). The Supreme Court held that an agency employee cannot be held in contempt of court for complying with the regulations.
When aliens file habeas corpus petitions in federal district court, the Civil Division will defend against those petitions. Aliens file habeas petitions in which they seek to review orders of exclusion, challenge the legality of detention by the Department of Homeland Security, United States Citizenship and Immigration Service, challenge the denial of parole in exclusion proceedings, or seek judicial review of the agency action, such as the denial of a request for stay of deportation.
When a government agency acquires land or an interest in land (such as an easement) to carry out a project, the property may have to be acquired by an action known as a "condemnation proceeding." Such proceedings are filed only after attempts to amicably purchase the interest from the owner have been unsuccessful.
Other types of litigation involving property include land use, inverse condemnation and quiet title cases. Land use cases typically involve an enforcement action, brought on behalf of an agency such as the Environmental Protection Agency, to enjoin an owner from using his property in a manner which is inconsistent with federal regulations. Inverse condemnation lawsuits, as the name implies, concern allegations of unauthorized takings by the United States and puts the government in the position of being a defendant. Such suits are based on the United States Constitution which forbids the government from taking without paying just compensation. When a homeowner is sued in state court for foreclosure and a federal agency holds a mortgage or judgment on the property, the United States Attorney will defend the priority of the federal interest in Wisconsin Circuit Court. Suits brought to quiet title arise when a citizen wishes to obtain clear title to property in which the United States claims an interest.
The Civil Division also files lawsuits on behalf of federal agencies in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin to foreclose mortgages and other liens held by federal agencies. Generally, federal law governs the priority of federal liens, and that rule is “first in time,” “first in right.” However, in United States v. Kimbell Foods, Inc., 440 U.S. 715 (1979), the United States Supreme Court held that when the United States has a lien, such as a mortgage, federal law incorporates non-discriminatory state law as to lien priority.
The United States becomes involved in bankruptcy cases when an individual, corporation, or partnership who owes money to the United States, files for protection under the bankruptcy laws of the United States.
As the attorney for a creditor in a bankruptcy proceeding, the Civil Division seeks to protect the United States' interest in the debtor's estate by defending against objections to the proof of claim filed by the United States and by objecting to confirmation of the debtor's plan of reorganization. The Civil Division also defends against actions to discharge taxes, determine tax liability, avoid liens, sell property free and clear of federal liens or mortgages, turnover of property, and enjoin certain actions by the United States. At times, the United States seeks to have the automatic stay lifted, or to have certain cases dismissed or converted to Chapter 7. Our work, however, is different from that of the United States Trustee. The Civil Division will also file adversary complaints asking the bankruptcy court to deny discharge to a particular debtor because collateral securing a lien held by the United States has been willfully disposed of without authorization.
The Civil Division frequently represents the United States Department of Agriculture, Farm Service Agency and Rural Housing Service, the United States Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service, the United States Department of Education, the United States Department of Health and Human Services and the Social Security Administration in bankruptcy matters.
Freedom of Information Act / Privacy Act Litigation
The Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) generally provides that any person has a right, enforceable in court, to request access to federal agency records or information. All agencies of the United States government are required to disclose records upon receiving a written request, except for those records (or portions of them) that are protected from disclosure by one of nine exemptions or one of three special law enforcement record exclusions.
The Privacy Act of 1974 is a companion to the FOIA. The Privacy Act allows most individuals to seek access to federal agency records about themselves, subject to its ten exemptions to disclosure. It also gives citizens the right to request an amendment if a nonexempt record is inaccurate, irrelevant, untimely, or incomplete, and to sue the government for permitting others to see their files unless specifically permitted by the law.
There is no one office of the federal government that handles all FOIA and Privacy Act requests. Each request must be made to the particular agency that has the records that you want. Both the FOIA and Privacy Act provide for administrative and judicial appeals if a requester disagrees with the decision made by an agency. A requester has the right to administratively appeal any adverse determination an agency makes on his or her FOIA or Privacy Act request. If an administrative appeal is denied, a requester has the right to appeal the denial in federal court. The Civil Division defends lawsuits filed by requesters in the Eastern District of Wisconsin.
Susan M. Knepel, Chief, Civil Division
US Attorney's Office, Eastern District of Wisconsin