Louisville & Nashville Railroad v. Mottley

211 U.S. 149 (1908)

Yeazell, pp. 217-219


Facts: The facts are actually irrelevant, but the Mottleys got a lifetime free rail pass to settle a claim against the railroad.  Later, Congress outlawed all lifetime rail passes and the railroad refused to honors the Mottleys’ pass anymore.  The Mottleys sued in federal court for specific performance to keep their pass.  They basically anticipated that the defense of the railroad would be to say that Congress forbade them from honoring the pass but that such an interpretation of the statute violated the Fifth Amendment, and that’s why the Mottleys brought suit in federal court.  The federal court granted specific performance to the Mottleys and the railroad appealed to the Supreme Court.


Issue: Did the federal district court have subject matter jurisdiction over the case?  (This is the real issue, though it wasn’t one of the issues argued before the court.)


Rule: A suit arises under the Constitution and laws of the United States only if the original statement of the plaintiff’s cause of action shows that it is based on the Constitution or federal statutes.  (A federal court can’t have jurisdiction just because the defendant might use a federal law or the Constitution to defend himself.)


Analysis: The court cites two cases, Tennessee v. Union & Planters’ Bank and Boston & Montana Consolidated Copper & Silver Mining Company v. Montana Ore Purchasing Company.  These cases set up the rule stated above.  The basic reason for this rule is that it is unnecessary for a plaintiff to answer their own complaint.


Conclusion: The case is reversed and remanded to the federal district court which is directed to dismiss the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.


Notes and Problems


1.     The federal trial court lacked jurisdiction because the original complaint of the Mottleys failed to state a cause of action in terms of any federal question.

a.      The federal issue arose in Mottley as a matter of the anticipated defense that the railroad was just following federal law in refusing to honor the Mottleys’ pass.

b.     Knowing what I know now, only the first case will “arise under” federal law because the cause of action is stated in terms of federal law.  In the second case, only the defense is one of federal law, and thus a federal court would not have subject matter jurisdiction.

2.     The Mottleys sued in federal court, so we can say that they were the ones who first raised the federal jurisdiction question.  But I think this question is getting at the fact that neither party brought up the jurisdiction question in argument, but rather the Supreme Court brought it up unilaterally in their decision.

a.      Under FRCP Rule 12(h)(3), we find out that subject matter jurisdiction is the most favored defense and it can be raised by anyone at any time, including the court itself.

b.     This question is begging us to say that this is a terribly inefficient way to settle the dispute between the Mottleys and the railroad.

3.     So how do we sort claims related to something federal from those that are not?  Mottley sorts on the pleadings.  One advantage is that this sorting can take place at the very beginning of the lawsuit.  It would be very inefficient to not sort these things out until the end of the lawsuit.

But there are also disadvantages.  First, you might actually want federal courts to have subject matter jurisdiction over cases like this or the hypothetical with the newspaper.  Second, this is outdated because you don’t need as much detail in pleading now.

4.     How could the same words mean something different in the Constitution than in a statute?  What would Scalia say?

a.      So the Supreme Court could hear the Mottleys’ second case even though the lower federal court couldn’t hear the first one.

b.     It’s up to Congress if they want to change the way things are.  Maybe they don’t want the federal courts to be overloaded.  However, other courts are overloaded.  Why not let the federal courts pick up some slack?


a.      Is there such a thing as federal common law?  I guess so.

b.     In Mottley, the federal law did not give rise to the plaintiffs’ claim, although it was the “but-for” cause of the plaintiffs’ troubles.

c.     I think this is where a lot of First Amendment cases get shepherded in.

6.     Oh, the answer to 5c is NO!  But then we get this other branch that uses a seemingly different standard.

a.      In Smith, the claim is stated under state law, but you can’t explain just what the defendant did wrong without resorting to the contention that a certain federal law is unconstitutional.  It almost seems to me like if the defendant could get you for “failure to state a claim” if you don’t refer to any federal law, then you have a “federal question”.  Mottley is distinguishable in that you can state a claim (“They broke a contract!”) without saying anything about federal law.  In Smith, let’s say you just said: “They bought some bonds!”  Then the defendant would say, “So what?  No claim.”  Or, what if you said: “They bought some illegal bonds!”  They would say, “Whaddya mean illegal?”  And you could either say: “Oh….nothing…” or you could say “Illegal because FEDERAL FEDERAL FEDERAL!”  And then you’re in, baby!

b.     This is a looooong excerpt.  It was written by Judge Friendly, the friendliest judge in town.  I guess the idea is copyrights are just stuff that you can trade around, so if the copyright itself is not in dispute, you don’t have a federal question.

c.     Fink and Tushnet propose a three-prong test for determining federal question jurisdiction.

1.     What is the national interest in adjudicating the matter in federal rather than state court?

2.     How likely is it that such an interest will actually come up in the case?

3.     How likely is it that the Supreme Court will get involved if the case goes through state courts?

7.     What about the Declaratory Judgment Act?

a.      The patent holder sues to just have the court say: “Yep, your patent is being infringed alright.”

b.     The competitor can preemptively go for the opposite declaration.  This is OK.

c.     The Supreme Court has decided that somebody can’t sue for a declaration that they are immune from a non-federal claim on federal grounds.  This is a close issue, but that’s how the cookie crumbled.


a.      A case can lose its federalosity midstream.  If the plaintiffs had gotten the court to include the settlement agreement in its dismissal order, then the federal court could have enforced the agreement.  Otherwise, it’s just a garden-variety common law contract type thing.

b.     You can’t remove to federal court based on the defense of claim preclusion.  Therefore, the claim doesn’t arise under federal law.


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