Hanna v. Plumer Case Brief

Summary of Hanna v. Plumer, U.S. Supreme Court (1965)

Cause of action: The following is a diversity citizenship action of negligence against the decedent’s estate, dealing with damages as the result of injuries sustained in a car accident.

Procedural History: Complaint by petitioner, an OH resident, filed in District Court for the District of MA, claiming damages in excess of $10k from an accident in SC, allegedly caused by the negligence of one Louise Plumer Osgood, a MA citizen deceased at the time of the filing of the complaint. Respondent is also a MA citizen and is executor for Osgood estate. Process served by petitioner according to rule 4(d)(1) of federal rules of civil procedure, while the respondent’s answer was submitted back as per MA General Law section 9.

District Court granted respondent’s motion for summary judgment citing Guaranty Trust v. York in that state law was the defining substantive and procedural rule. Court of Appeals affirmed. The Court, after granting certiorari, reversed.

Facts: Service of process in an negligence was compliant with federal rule 4(d)(1), and the answer came back according to Massachusetts procedure.

Issue(s): Under civil procedure, which jurisdiction holds power over the other in manner of service of process when the action is based upon diversity of citizenship between the parties when the petitioner filed complied with Federal Rule 4(d)(1), and respondent filed the answer according to Massachusetts General Law?

Court’s Rationale/Reasoning: Rule 4 fits into the Rules Enabling Act. Rule 4(d)(1) would prevail were there no state statute, as the Erie Doctrine is applied to substantive law, or so previous courts might have thought. What Erie does is not a check on Federal rules of Civil Procedure; it only applied when a case would be decided markedly different when applying the federal rule. If the court were to adopt the respondent’s contention, this would mean adhering to state law, substantive or procedural, in any diversity action in a federal court. The Erie rule is rooted in part in a realization that it would be unfair for the character of result of a litigation materially to differ b/c the suit had been brought in a federal court.

It is doubtful that even if there were no Federal Rule making it clear that in-hand service is not required in diversity action, the Erie rule would’ve obligated the District Court to follow the MA procedure. Service of process here is not outcome determinative. The York “substantial variations” test cannot be read without reference to Erie.

Although the choice of procedural rule will have a marked outcome on the litigation, the difference is negligible in choosing a forum. Erie Doctrine does not constitute the test of validity/applicability of Federal law. Only time when Erie was involved in Federal Rules is when one of those rules lacked the scope, and that under Erie, a state law could gap fill in a matter of speaking. There are different questions for different situations not all encompassing.

Erie also never dealt with a state rule at odds with a federal rule, and specifically dealt with which substantive law to use; here the rules at odds are procedural. The line is not distinct in the previous category, but when a federal rule would not interfere with the legal process in a civil diversity action, there is no reason to change the procedure involved. The substantive law is a matter for the courts to decide at that time.

Rule: Prescribing the manner in which a DF is to be notified that a suit is to be instituted against him, it relates to the “practice and procedure” of the federal district courts.

Holding: The adoption of federal rule 4(d)(1), designed to control service of process in diversity actions, neither exceeded the congressional mandate embodied in the Rules Enabling Act nor transgressed constitutional bounds, and that the rule is therefore the standard against which the District Court should have measured the adequacy of the service.

Concurring: (Justice Harlan) Go right to the substantial/procedural debate immediately, as the lines were drawn pretty clear in this matter. “The Court’s ‘arguably procedural, ergo constitutional’ test moves too fast and far in the other direction.”

***NOTEWORTHY*** Hanna decision extends to cases involving the application of federal procedural statutes over state law, with the statute only having to be broad enough to cover the point in dispute. Federal courts, though, have been reluctant to decide whether federal or state law should govern the enforcement of forum selection clauses in diversity cases.

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