OPM V. RICHMOND, 496 U. S. 414 (1990)

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U.S. Supreme Court

OPM v. Richmond, 496 U.S. 414 (1990)

Office of Personnel Management v. Richmond

No. 88-1943

Argued Feb. 21, 1990

Decided June 11, 1990

496 U.S. 414


Not wishing to exceed a statutory limit on earnings that would disqualify him from continuing to receive a disability annuity based on his years of civilian service with the Navy, respondent Richmond sought advice from Navy employee relations personnel and received erroneous oral and written information. When Richmond's reliance on the information caused him to earn more than permitted by the relevant statute, petitioner, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), denied him six months of benefits. The Merit Systems Protection Board denied his petition for review, rejecting his contention that the erroneous advice given him should estop OPM and bar its finding him ineligible for benefits under the statute. The Court of Appeals reversed, ruling that the misinformation estopped the Government, and that the estoppel required payment of benefits despite the statutory provision to the contrary.

Held: Payments of money from the Federal Treasury are limited to those authorized by statute, and erroneous advice given by a Government employee to a benefit claimant cannot estop the Government from denying benefits not otherwise permitted by law. Pp. 496 U. S. 419-434.

(a) Although dicta in some recent cases -- e.g., Montana v. Kennedy, 366 U. S. 308, 366 U. S. 314-315; INS v. Hibi, 414 U. S. 5, 414 U. S. 8 (per curiam) -- have suggested, contrary to the Court's long-recognized rule, that there might be situations in which employee misconduct could give rise to estoppel against the Government, the Court has reversed, often summarily, every lower court finding of estoppel it has reviewed. The Court need not, however, address the Government's suggestion that, in order to avoid confusion in this area, the Court should adopt a flat rule that no estoppel will ever lie against the Government under any circumstances. A narrower ground of decision controls the type of suit presented in this case. Pp. 496 U. S. 419-424.

(b) A claim for payment of money from the Public Treasury contrary to a statutory appropriation is prohibited by the Appropriations Clause of the Constitution, Art. I, § 9, cl. 7, which provides in effect that such money may be paid out only as authorized by a statute. Thus, judicial use of the equitable doctrine of estoppel cannot grant respondent a

Page 496 U. S. 415

money remedy that Congress has not authorized. Recognition of equitable estoppel could render the Appropriations Clause a nullity if agents of the Executive were able, by their unauthorized oral or written statements to citizens, to obligate the Treasury contrary to the wishes of Congress. Where Congress wishes to recognize claims for estoppel, it knows how to do so, as it has done by statute in the past. Pp. 496 U. S. 424-429.

(c) This decision is supported by the Court's estoppel precedents, which have never upheld an estoppel claim against the Government for the payment of money; by provisions of the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), which authorize private suits against the Government based on its agents' torts, but exclude misrepresentation claims similar to Richmond's; and by Congress' historical and continuing practice of reserving to itself the power to address hardship claims arising from misinformation or erroneous advice given by Government officials. Although Congress has made a general appropriation of funds to pay judgments against the Government under the FTCA and other statutory authorizations for suits against the Government, none of those provisions encompass, or authorize payment for, Richmond's claim. A rule of estoppel would invite endless litigation over both real and imagined claims of misinformation, imposing an unpredictable and substantial drain on the public fisc, and might prompt the Government, in order to limit liability, to cut back and impose strict controls on the free and valuable information it now provides to the public. Pp. 496 U. S. 429-434.

862 F.2d 294 (CA Fed.1988), reversed.

KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J.,and WHITE, BLACKMUN, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 496 U. S. 434. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 496 U. S. 435. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 496 U. S. 437.

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