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Hanna v. Plumer

    Brief Fact Summary
    Hanna (Plaintiff) brought suit in federal district court in Massachusetts and served Plumer (Defendant) according to federal rules instead of state rules, which the trial court held to be a violation of the Erie Doctrine.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law
    Where a question arises under a Federal Rule of Procedure, the rule should be applied unless it is shown that the Supreme Court and Congress erred in their prima facie judgment that the rule in question transgresses either the Rules Enabling Act or constitutional restrictions.

    Facts
    Hanna (Plaintiff), a resident of Ohio, sued the executor of a deceased Massachusetts resident in the federal district court in Massachusetts.  According to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(d)(1), Plumer (Defendant) was served by having copies of the complaint left at his house with “someone of suitable age and discretion residing therein.â€Â  Under Massachusetts law, in-hand service of process was required.  Defendant moved to dismiss the action on grounds that under the Erie Doctrine, the rules as to service were substantive, not procedural, and therefore state rules should have been followed.  The district court dismissed, the court of appeals affirmed, and Plaintiff appealed.

    Issue
    Where a question arises under a Federal Rule of Procedure, should the Rule be applied?

    Held
    (Warren, C.J.)  Yes.  Where a question arises under a Federal Rule of Procedure, the rule should be applied unless it is shown that the Supreme Court and Congress erred in their prima facie judgment that the rule in question transgresses either the Rules Enabling Act or constitutional restrictions.  Under the Rules Enabling Act, the Supreme Court determines the rules of civil practice and procedure in federal courts.  While these rules can only help affect litigants’ rights, they cannot affect substantive rights.  In this case, application of state law would not have barred recovery, but only alter how the litigation would begin.  That would not appear to affect a substantial right.  Also, Erie has never been used to void a federal rule.  Only where a federal rule has not been as broad as the losing party argued, has substantive state law been used to fill the gap.  In making or formulating rules, the court must measure those rules against the Rules Enabling Act and the Constitution, but it is not required to blind itself completely to the degree where the rule makes the character and result of the federal litigation stray from the course it would follow in state courts.  Reversed.

    Concurrence
    (Harlan, J.)  To determine if a rule is substantive or procedural, the court should inquire if whether the choice would substantially affect those primary decisions respecting human conduct which our constitutional system leaves to state regulation.

    Discussion
    In Sabich v. Wilson, 312 U.S. 1, 14 (1941), the Court said, “The test must be whether a rule really regulates procedure the judicial process for enforcing rights and duties recognized by substantive law and for justly administering remedy and redress for disregard or infraction of them.â€Â  This was criticized as ignoring the statutory requirement that the rules not infringe substantive rights.  It is possible that the failure of Congress to strike the rules down during their “grace period†gives them statutory validity.


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