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Hanna v. Plumer: Case & Analysis

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet

Kenneth has a JD, practiced law for over 10 years, and has taught criminal justice courses as a full-time instructor.

When federal courts are deciding a dispute between citizens of different states, a question arises over which law to use. In this lesson, we will learn how the Supreme Court decided that issue in ''Hanna v. Plumer''.

When in Rome?

If a citizen from one state sues a citizen from another state, and the case is in federal court, which law should the federal judge apply when deciding the case? What about serving papers and other issues of court procedure? Often times it makes little difference, other times the outcome of the case depends on it. This is the issue the Supreme Court wrestled with in Hannah v. Plumer (1965).

Facts of the Case

Eddie Hanna, an Ohio citizen, got into a car wreck in South Carolina with Louise Plumer Osgood, who was from Massachusetts. Hanna filed a complaint in Federal District Court for the District of Massachusetts against Edward Plumer who had been appointed executor of Louis Osgood's estate. Hanna served Plumer following the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 4 (d) (1) by leaving copies of the summons and complaint with Plumer's wife at their home.

A controversy arose regarding the manner of service because the defendant resided in Massachusetts, which required that service be made on the defendant in person. However, rule (4) (d) (1) allowed for service on any competent adult residing at the residence of the defendant. Plumer filed a motion to have the case dismissed, and the court granted the motion. Hanna appealed, and the case went to the Supreme Court.

Background

Federal law allows a controversy between two different state's citizens to file a civil suit in federal district court. This is called diversity jurisdiction. Both parties to the suit must reside in different states, and the amount of controversy must be over $75,000 ($10,000 in 1965). The federal district court judge has to apply the law of the state in which the federal courthouse sits.

In 1842, the Supreme Court ruled in Swift v. Tyson, that the ''state law'' that must be followed meant statutory law only, which are laws passed by a legislature. If there was no statutory law that addressed the issue, then the district court judge did not have to follow that state's common law which is a body of substantive law generated over time by court precedence, but could follow federal law.

Then, in 1938, the Supreme Court overturned Swift in its ruling in Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins holding that a district court judge must apply the state's common law if no statute exists. In many areas of civil law, such as personal injury, there are no statutes that apply, and the courts follow the law generated over time by previous court decision. This became the Erie Dotrine, and the courts have been following that ever since.

Just to make things more complicated, after the Erie case, the Supreme Court held that in some situations where applying state law would create a substantial difference in the case, then the federal judge can use federal law. This is called the outcome determative test and is used to prevent forum shopping where the filing party chooses which jurisdiction to file based on the law that favors them.

But should the outcome determinative test be used for things like serving court documents? When Hanna came before the Supreme Court, there had been no case that addressed whether the outcome determinative test should be used in procedural law, which are laws that govern court procedure as opposed to substantive law which governs the legal issues in the case.

Issue and Decision

The Supreme Court was asked whether in diversity cases which rules are applied for purposes of service of process? The Court held that the Federal Rules should apply.

In their opinion, the justices laid out two approaches to deciding which procedural rules should apply. The first is to apply the outcome-determinative test, which is:

  • State procedural rules should be used if the application of the federal rules would alter the outcome of the case.
    • If yes, then apply state law,
    • If no, the apply federal rules.

Since the Hanna case would be dismissed for lack of service, this would be a different outcome, therefore the state procedural rules should apply.

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