320 U.S. 228 (1943), 42, Meredith v. Winter Haven

Docket Nº:No. 42
Citation:320 U.S. 228, 64 S.Ct. 7, 88 L.Ed. 9
Party Name:Meredith v. Winter Haven
Case Date:November 08, 1943
Court:United States Supreme Court

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320 U.S. 228 (1943)

64 S.Ct. 7, 88 L.Ed. 9



Winter Haven

No. 42

United States Supreme Court

Nov. 8, 1943

Argued October 22, 1943




1. Where a federal court has jurisdiction of a case, though solely by diversity of citizenship, the difficulties of ascertaining what the state courts may thereafter determine the state law to be do not, in themselves, afford a sufficient ground for declining to exercise the jurisdiction. P. 234.

So held in respect of a suit instituted in a federal district court in Florida, the decision of which was concerned solely with the extent of the liability of a Florida municipality upon its refunding bonds.

2. In the absence of some recognized public policy or defined principle guiding the exercise of the jurisdiction conferred, which would in

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exceptional cases warrant its nonexercise, it has from the first been deemed to be the duty of the federal courts, if their jurisdiction is properly invoked, to decide questions of state law whenever necessary to the rendition of judgment. When such exceptional circumstances are not present, denial of that opportunity by the federal courts merely because the answers to the questions of state law are difficult or uncertain or have not yet been given by the highest court of the State would thwart the purpose of the jurisdictional act. P. 234.

134 F.2d 202 reversed.

Certiorari, 319 U.S. 736, to review a judgment which, in a suit based on diversity of citizenship, directed dismissal without prejudice to the plaintiff's right to proceed in the state court.

STONE, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE STONE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioners sought a judgment granting equitable relief in the District Court below, whose jurisdiction rested solely on diversity of citizenship. The question is whether the Circuit Court of Appeals, [64 S.Ct. 9] on appeal from the judgment of the District Court, rightly declined to exercise its jurisdiction on the ground that decision of the case on the merits turned on questions of Florida constitutional and statutory law which the decisions of the Florida courts had left in a state of uncertainty.

Petitioners brought this suit in the District Court for Southern Florida, alleging by their bill of complaint that they are owners and holders of General Refunding Bonds issued in 1933 by respondent, the City of Winter Haven, Florida; that, by their terms, the bonds are callable by the city on any interest date on tender of their principal

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amount and accrued interest, including a specified amount (depending on the date of call) of the interest payable upon the deferred interest coupons attached to the bonds; that the city is about to call and retire the bonds without providing for payment of the deferred interest coupons. The bill of complaint prayed a declaration that this could not lawfully be done and an injunction restraining the city from doing it.

In the event that the court should determine that the obligation of the deferred interest coupons is unenforceable, then it was prayed that the court declare that petitioners are entitled to enforce the obligation for payment, principal and interest, of the amount of the original bonded indebtedness of the city which was refunded by the General Refunding Bonds now held by petitioners, and that the court enjoin the city and its officials, respondents here, from failing or refusing to pay the interest due on such refunded bonds, as provided by the resolution of the city commissioners authorizing the issue and sale of the General Refunding Bonds in 1933.

The District Court granted respondents' motion to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that it failed to state a cause of action and that the questions of law involved had been determined adversely to petitioners by the Supreme Court of Florida. The Court of Appeals, without passing on the merits, reversed and directed that the cause be dismissed without prejudice to petitioners' right to proceed in the state courts to secure a determination of the questions of state law involved. 134 F.2d 202.

The Court of Appeals agreed with petitioners that the bill of complaint presented a justiciable controversy requiring determination, that they were entitled to a judgment declaring the law of Florida with respect to the validity of the deferred interest coupons, and that, if petitioners' contentions were sustained, they were entitled

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to a declaration in their favor and an injunction implementing the declaration. But, upon an examination of the Florida decisions, the court concluded that the applicable law of Florida was not clearly settled and stable, but was quite the contrary, citing Sullivan v. City of Tampa, 101 Fla. 298, 134 So. 211; Commissioners of Columbia County v. King, 13 Fla. 451; State ex rel. Nuveen v. Greer, 88 Fla. 249, 102 So. 739, 37 A.L.R. 1298; Humphreys v. State ex rel. Palm Beach Co., 108 Fla. 92, 145 So. 858; Alta-Cliff Co. v. Spurway, 113 Fla. 633, 152 So. 731; Lee v. Bond-Howell Lumber Co., 123 Fla. 202, 166 So. 733, and Andrews v. City of Winter Haven, 148 Fla. 144, 3 So.2d 805. It expressed doubt as to what the Florida law, applicable to the facts presented, now is or will be declared to be, and in view of this uncertainty, since no federal question was presented and the jurisdiction was invoked solely on grounds of diversity of citizenship, it thought that petitioners should be required to proceed in the state courts.

Although the opinion below refers to the suit as one for a declaratory judgment, the declaration of rights prayed, as is usually the case in suits for an injunction, is an indispensable prerequisite to the award of one or the other of the forms of equitable relief which petitioners seek in the alternative. Hence, so far as we are concerned with the necessity and propriety of a determination by a federal court of questions of state law, the case does not differ from an ordinary equity suit in which, both before and since Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, federal courts have been called upon to decide state questions in order to render a judgment.

The facts, as presented by the amended bill of complaint and the motion to dismiss, raise two issues of state law, one and possibly both of which must be decided if petitioners are to have the benefit which they seek of the jurisdiction conferred on [64 S.Ct. 10] district courts in diversity cases. The first question arises from the fact that the Refunding Bonds of

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1933 were issued without a referendum to the freehold voters of the city. Article IX, § 6 of the Florida constitution provides that municipalities "shall have power to issue bonds only after the same shall have been approved by a majority of the votes cast in an election," in which a majority of the freeholders of the municipality shall participate, but dispenses with this requirement in the case of "refunding" bonds. The question is whether, under the applicable decisions of the Florida courts, the provision for deferred interest coupons could rightly be included in the obligation of the Refunding Bonds of 1933 without a referendum. If it be decided that the provision could not be included and that the coupons are invalid, the second question is whether petitioners, as holders of refunding bonds, are entitled, under § 20 of the resolution of the city commissioners authorizing the Refunding Bond issue, * to recover the principal and interest of an equivalent amount of the bonds refunded. This...

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