Hanna v. Plumer

380 U.S. 460 (1965)

Yeazell, pp. 284-292


Facts: Hanna, from Ohio, sued the estate of Osgood, from Massachusetts, over a car accident in South Carolina.


Procedural Posture: Hanna served process by leaving documents with the wife of the executor, which complied with the FRCP, but not Massachusetts law.  The defendant moved to dismiss on this basis, citing Erie and subsequent cases, and the trial court granted the motion.  The plaintiff appealed, saying that the FRCP rules in diversity actions.  The Circuit Court ruled that the state statute should govern because it is substantive rather than merely procedural.  The plaintiff appealed to the Supreme Court.


Issue: In a civil action brought in federal court based on diversity jurisdiction, shall service of process be based on the FRCP or on state law?


Rule: NEW(ish) RULE!  Basically, Erie does not kill the FRCP.


Analysis: The majority writes that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure as adopted by the Supreme Court do not violate the Rules Enabling Act, nor are they unconstitutional.


The Court is trying to remedy a divergence between the Erie line of cases and those construing the Rules Enabling Act.


The Court finds that if there was no conflict with state law, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure would control, but Erie presents a problem.  The defendant argued that the outcome-determinative test must be used, and under that test the defendant would win immediately.  However, the Court says that the outcome-determinative test is not absolute.  Erie is meant to remedy problems arising from big differences between state and federal law, not tiny, insubstantial ones.  The Court suggests that the difference between Massachusetts law and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in this case is not that big.  To figure out which law controls, the Court says that the policy reasons underlying Erie must be considered.


Erie, according to this Court, has two goals:


1.     Stop forum-shopping, and

2.     Avoid unfair differences in administration of justice between state and federal courts.


The Court says that the competing rules, though outcome-determinative, have little or no relevance to the choice of a forum.  You wouldn’t decide to file in state versus federal court based solely on the choice between these two laws.  The difference between the two laws also doesn’t raise any equal protection problems.


The Court further argues that Erie has never been used to kill a Federal Rule.  The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure have not been held to be invalid, only not as broad as alleged and thus trumped in a particular case by a state rule.


The Court says that the tests of Erie and of the Rules Enabling Act are not identical.  The nature of the Rules Enabling Act is that it kills rules that go too far given the constitutional and Congressional mandate.  Nobody is allowed to write unconstitutional rules.  But Erie dealt with a difference in law that was clearly substantive, and didn’t kill the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.


The Court claims that Erie wasn’t meant to curtail the power of Congress to say how things should run at a procedural level in the federal courts.


Justice Harlan, in a concurring opinion, proposes an alternative rule: the state rule should prevail if “the choice of rule would substantially affect those primary decisions respecting human conduct which our constitutional system leaves to state regulation.”  I don’t know what the heck that means.


Harlan objects to the rule made by the majority in that he feels that anything that can reasonably be called “procedural” and put into the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure will be allowed to control, no matter how much it screws up rights granted by the states.  Harlan finds that this makes the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure too absolute.


Harlan says that in the present case, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure should rule because the effect of using them instead of the Massachusetts rule “would not be substantial”.  Harlan basically says: no harm, no foul, so we’ll use the Federal Rule.


Conclusion: The decision of the Circuit Court of Appeals was reversed.  The FRCP live on!


Notes and Problems


1.     The federal court could disregard the state rule because the Constitution grants power over the federal courts to the federal government and Congress grants control of the rules to the courts as well.

2.     I was wondering whether an alternative move here would have been to find the Rules Enabling Act unconstitutional.  What would happen if the Rules Enabling Act were repealed by Congress?

3.     We only apply Hanna when a federal court would behave differently from a state court in the absence of a competing state rule.

a.      If the federal practice is dictated by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or another federal statute, that practice rules as long as the rule or statute is constitutional.  It appears that there was precedent for finding the REA constitutional.  Therefore, when you’re considering whether a federal court should apply a rule, you must ask two things: (1) Is the rule okay under the REA in that it is a rule of “practice and procedure”?  (2) Is the rule constitutional in and of itself?  No Rule has ever been held unconstitutional or in violation of the REA.

b.     The difference between federal and state practice is that the state practice would stop the suit in its tracks, while the federal practice would let it continue.  The federal practice is followed because it is procedural and thus in the realm of the REA, and it is also constitutional on its face.


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