Hanna v. Plumer – Case Brief Summary
Summary of Hanna v. Plumer, 380 U.S. 460 (1965).
Hanna (P), an Ohio resident, was involved in an automobile accident in South Carolina with Osgood, a resident of Massachusetts. Hanna brought an action in diversity in Massachusetts federal district court against Plumer (D), the executor of the estate of Osgood.
Plumer was served with process according to FRCP 4(d)(1) by leaving copies of the summons with his wife at his residence. Under Massachusetts rules however, service upon an executor must be handed personally to the executor within one year.
Plumer moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the state law rule regarding service should be used. Citing Guaranty Trust Co. v. York, Plumer argued that the Erie doctrine applies when the issue is outcome determinative; in this case if Massachusetts rules applied the case would be dismissed because Plumer had not been served within the statute of limitations and the court would therefore not have personal jurisdiction over him. On the other hand, if the federal rules applied, Hanna would have an opportunity to have the case tried on the merits.
The trial court granted Plumer’s motion and Hanna appealed, arguing that the rule established in Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins applies only to issues of substantive law and not procedural rules. The First Circuit affirmed and the United States Supreme Court granted cert.
- Does the Erie doctrine apply to rules of procedure pertaining to service of process?
- Do the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure apply, irrespective of the source of subject matter jurisdiction, and irrespective of whether state or federal substantive law applies?
Holding and Rule (Warren)
- No. The Erie doctrine does not apply to rules of procedure pertaining to service of process.
- Yes. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure apply irrespective of the source of subject matter jurisdiction, and irrespective of whether state or federal substantive law applies.
The court held that the question in this case only goes to procedural requirements. A dismissal for improper service under these facts would not alter the substantive right of Hanna to serve Plumer personally and refile or affect the substantive law of negligence in the case. Article III and the Necessary and Proper Clause provides that the Congress has a right to provide rules for the Federal Court (FRCP 4(d)(1). Plumer’s arguments for the application of state law are flawed. Under Byrd, federal courts must apply federal law in certain situations regardless of whether choice of law would be outcome determinative.
The choice of the federal or state rule have a marked effect upon the outcome of litigation but the difference between the rules would be of scant if any relevance to the choice of forum. A party would not choose a federal court simply because Rule 4(d)(1) has an easier method of service. The Erie rule has never been invoked to void a Federal Rule. This case is differentiated from York and Erie in that they never dealt with a federal rule conflicting with state law. If there is no federal rule, Erie commands the enforcement of state law. The exercise of constitutional authority by Congress in the Rules Enabling Act does not have to take a backseat to state created rights and procedures. The federal rule is valid and controls the case.
The test for deciding whether the Erie doctrine applies to a rule of procedure should be a determination of whether the choice of rule would substantially affect those primary decisions respecting human conduct which our constitutional system leaves to state regulation. If so, Erie and the Constitution require that the state rule prevail, even in the face of a conflicting federal rule. Erie wanted to ensure that there were not two conflicting systems of law and the creation of substantive state law by federal courts should be avoided if that creation extends beyond constitutional limits.
Note that in the 1842 case Swift v. Tyson, the Supreme Court had held that the Rules of Decision Act did not call for the application of state decisional law in addition to statutory law.