There was a car crash and Plaintiff sued Defendant, the executor of the decedent driver’s estate. Plaintiff brings case in federal court in Massachusetts. Plaintiff served Defendant through substituted service of process which was okay under FRCP 4 but not under Massachusetts law.
If a plaintiff serves a defendant properly under the FRCP the plaintiff can proceed with a state law claim that requires a different method of service for establishing liability.
There was a car crash that resulted in the death of the negligent driver. Plaintiff Hanna, the surviving driver, brough suit in federal court based on diversity jurisdiction. Plaintiff served Defendant, executor of decedent driver’s estate, following FRCP 4. But, since Defendant Plumer was away, Plaintiff gave the paperwork to Defendant Plumer’s wife. Under Massachusetts law however, this substituted service of process that was okay under FRCP 4 was not allowed. The Massachusetts law required the executor to be served personally in order to be liable. As a result of this defect, Defendant Plumer moved for summary judgement based on an affirmative defense allowed under Massachusetts law that allowed dismissal for deficient service. The district judge dismissed the case, First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, and the Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari.
Can a plaintiff bringing suit in federal court based on diversity jurisdiction serve the defendant under the federal rules and still proceed with a state law claim that requires a different method of service?
Yes, a plaintiff bringing suit in federal court based on diversity jurisdiction can serve the defendant under the federal rules and still proceed with a state law claim that requires a different method of service. The judgement of the court of appeals is reversed and Plaintiff Hanna is permitted to continue with her lawsuit.
Justice Justice Harlan concurring
Erie represents respect for state laws, and the court’s test here, while the outcome is correct, may damage state laws in order to save irrelevant federal procedural rules.
1. The issue between the federal and state law falls in an ambiguous space between substance and procedure.
2. In a diversity jurisdiction case where federal and state law conflict, the federal rule trumps.
3. The FRCP establishes uniformity in diversity cases which is lawful under the Rules Enabling Act.
4. The court does not accept Defendant Plumer’s argument that Erie requires enforcing the Massachusetts statue.
5. While Erie requires federal courts sitting in diversity to apply state substantive law, like the Massachusetts law outlining how executors must be served in order to be held liable, Erie was intended to reduce forum shopping.
6. While the Massachusetts law at issue here does not pose a major risk of forum shopping, Plaintiff reasonably served Defendant Plumer’s wife and Defendant should not be allowed to avoid liability based on the minor fact that he was served incorrectly under Massachusetts law.
7. A federal rule has never been voided by a state rule. This would weaken the purpose of Erie in allowing a federal rule to trump a state one when they are at odds.
8. The judgement of the court of appeals is reversed and Plaintiff Hanna is permitted to continue with her lawsuit.