Government lawyers are under pressure to stop acting so much like lawyers. The Administrative Conference of the United States -- the agency made up of federal officials and private citizens that is supposed to set general governmentwide standards on administrative matters -- is calling for a lot less reliance on legal technicalities when the various departments handle claims filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Too often now, the conference says, claims that have real merit are tossed out because a "t" is not crossed or an "i" not dotted. And the conference members say that is the wrong way to go about administering a statute that is specifically designed to give a hand to the ordinary citizen.
The FTCA lets individuals sue the government for any kind of routine injury. But, to minimize the amount of litigation, it requires the would-be plaintiffs first to explain their case to the agency involved, and to see if the matter can be settled without going to court. Most are. But the Administrative Conference wants the individual claims officers to be a lot less hard-nosed about processing these applications for damages. The group is advocating that the officers:
* Stop rejecting claims because of technical errors, and instead point out to the applicants what the problems are and give them a chance to correct them.
* Give the applicants extra time, beyond the normal filing deadlines, to make the corrections, when the law gives the bureaucrats the authority to be flexible.
* Allow a claim that is mailed by the deadline, even if it actually arrives at the agency after the cutoff date.
* Be a lot more open about sharing information in their files relating to the accident or other problem that gave rise to the claim -- even when there is a legal excuse for keeping the data confidential.
* Tell applicants why they were turned down and spell out for them the appeals procedures open to them. The Administrative Conference specifically wants the claims officers, when fielding phone calls from applicants whose claims have been rejected, to tell them whether their complaints add up to a request for reconsideration and, if not, what they should do to make the request more formal.
The report takes special aim at the Justice Department, which -- because it handles the FTCA cases that get to court -- generally supervises what other agencies are doing under the statute. Too often, the conference members say, Justice bounces back to the agencies tentative settlements worked out with applicants because big bucks are involved. And that, in turn, makes the claims officers wary of settling serious cases. If the damages were so extensive that a big settlement is fair, the claims officer should make the offer and Justice should not pounce on it, the Adminstrative Conference says.
Some of the suggested changes merely are meant to make it easier for men and women in the street to know what to do when they have a claim against Uncle Sam. The simplest: Publish a list of who in each organization handles what sort of claims, and how that person can be reached by phone, and then send the list to all claimants.
Prestigious as the conference is, its recommendations often merely sit on the shelves of the various agency law libraries, gathering dust. Conference Chairman Loren A. Smith, however, is planning to put an extra push behind the FTCA report. He's trying to get Justice to set up an internal task force to examine the way the law is now administered. He also is seeking to establish an ad hoc committee of the claims officers in the individual agencies, to get them to pull together to show more tolerance of claimants' legal errors.
But there's only so much that claims officers can do: The conference members say that in some cases, the underlying laws that authorize payments need themselves to be changed. For one thing, many contain money limits that have become outdated because of inflation. The report recommends that such limits be raised across the board. But beyond that, the conference wants Congress to ease some of the tight time restrictions that are written into the law.
In the major legislative fights in Washington, technical changes in the FTCA will never loom large. The biggest hurdle facing the Administrative Conference is not opposition, but indifference. But if the changes ever happen, they will mean a lot to a lot of the very folks the law was meant to aid.