370 U.S. 626 (1962), 422, Link v. Wabash Railroad Co.

Docket Nº:No. 422
Citation:370 U.S. 626, 82 S.Ct. 1386, 8 L.Ed.2d 734
Party Name:Link v. Wabash Railroad Co.
Case Date:June 25, 1962
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 626

370 U.S. 626 (1962)

82 S.Ct. 1386, 8 L.Ed.2d 734

Link

v.

Wabash Railroad Co.

No. 422

United States Supreme Court

June 25, 1962

Argued April 3, 1962

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

More than six years after institution of this diversity of citizenship action by petitioner in a Federal District Court to recover damages for personal injuries sustained in a collision between petitioner's automobile and one of respondent's trains, more than three years after petitioner had finally prevailed against respondent's motion for judgment on the pleadings, and after two fixed trial dates had been postponed, the Court, on September 29, 1960, scheduled a pretrial conference to be held in Hammond, Ind., on October 12, 1960, at 1:00 p.m., and notified counsel for both sides. During the morning of October 11, petitioner's counsel telephoned respondent's counsel from Indianapolis that he expected to be at the pretrial conference. At about 10:45 a.m. on October 12, petitioner's counsel telephoned the judge's secretary to tell the judge that he was otherwise engaged in Indianapolis, that he could not be in Hammond by 1:00 o'clock; but that he would be there on the afternoon of October 13 or any time on October 14, if the pretrial conference could be reset. When petitioner's counsel failed to appear at the pretrial conference, the Court, acting sua sponte, reviewed the history of the case, found that petitioner's counsel had failed to indicate any reasonable excuse for his nonappearance, and dismissed the action "for failure of the plaintiff's counsel to appear at the pretrial, for failure to prosecute this action."

Held: the judgment is affirmed. Pp. 627-636.

(a) The long recognized inherent power of Federal District Courts, acting on their own initiative, to dismiss cases that have remained dormant because of the inaction or dilatoriness of the parties seeking relief has not been restricted by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(b) to cases in which the defendant moves for dismissal. Pp. 629-632.

(b) The circumstances here were such as to dispense with the necessity for advance notice and hearing before dismissing the case. Pp. 632-633.

(c) Petitioner was bound by his lawyer's conduct on the basis of which the action was dismissed. Pp. 633-634.

Page 627

(d) On the record in this case, it cannot be said that the District Court's dismissal of this action for failure to prosecute amounted to an abuse of discretion. Pp. 633-636.

291 F.2d 542, affirmed.

HARLAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner challenges, from the standpoint of both power and discretion, the District Court's sua sponte dismissal of this diversity negligence action under circumstances that follow.

The action, growing out of a collision between petitioner's automobile and one of respondent's trains, was commenced on August 24, 1954. Some six years later, and more than three years after petitioner had finally prevailed on respondent's motion for judgment on the pleadings (during which time two fixed trial dates had been postponed),1 the District Court, on September 29, 1960, duly notified counsel for each side of the scheduling of a pretrial conference to be held at the courthouse in Hammond, Indiana, on October 12, 1960 at 1 p.m. During the preceding morning, October 11, petitioner's counsel telephoned respondent's lawyer from Indianapolis, stating that "he was doing some work on some papers," that he expected to be at the pretrial conference, but that he might not attend the taking of a deposition of the plaintiff scheduled for the same day. At about 10:45 on the morning of October 12, petitioner's counsel telephoned the

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Hammond courthouse from Indianapolis (about 160 miles away), and, after asking for the judge, who then was on the bench, requested the judge's secretary to convey to him this message: "that he [counsel] was busy preparing papers to file with the [Indiana] Supreme Court," that

he wasn't actually engaged in argument, and that he couldn't be here by 1:00 o'clock, but he would be here either Thursday afternoon [October 13] or any time Friday [October 14] if it [the pretrial conference] could be reset.

When petitioner's counsel did not appear at the pretrial conference, the District Court, after reviewing the history of the case2 and finding that counsel had failed

Page 629

"to indicate . . . a reasonable reason" for his nonappearance, dismissed the action "for failure of the plaintiff's counsel to appear at the pretrial, for failure to prosecute this action." The court, acting two hours after the appointed hour for the conference, stated that the dismissal was in the "exercise [of] its inherent power." The Court of Appeals affirmed by a divided vote. 291 F.2d 542. We granted certiorari. 368 U.S. 918.

I

The authority of a federal trial court to dismiss a plaintiff's action with prejudice because of his failure to prosecute cannot seriously be doubted.3 The power to invoke this sanction is necessary in order to prevent undue delays in the disposition of pending cases and to avoid congestion

Page 630

in the calendars of the District Courts. The power is of ancient origin, having its roots in judgments of non-suit and non prosequitur entered at common law, e.g., 3 Blackstone, Commentaries (1768) 295-296, and dismissals for want of prosecution of bills in equity, e.g., id. at 451. It has been expressly recognized in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(b), which provides, in pertinent part:

(b) Involuntary Dismissal: Effect Thereof. For failure of the plaintiff to prosecute or to comply with these rules or any order of court, a defendant may move for dismissal of an action or of any claim against him. . . . Unless the court in its order for dismissal otherwise specifies, a dismissal under this subdivision and any dismissal not provided for in this rule, other than a dismissal for lack of jurisdiction or for improper venue, operates as an adjudication upon the merits.

Petitioner contends that the language of this Rule, by negative implication, prohibits involuntary dismissals for failure of the plaintiff to prosecute except upon motion by the defendant. In the present case, there was no such motion.

We do not read Rule 41(b) as implying any such restriction. Neither the permissive language of the Rule -- which merely authorizes a motion by the defendant -- nor its policy requires us to conclude that it was the purpose of the Rule to abrogate the power of courts, [82 S.Ct. 1389] acting on their own initiative, to clear their calendars of cases that have remained dormant because of the inaction or dilatoriness of the parties seeking relief. The authority of a court to dismiss sua sponte for lack of prosecution has generally been considered an "inherent power," governed not by rule or statute, but by the control necessarily vested in courts to manage their own affairs so as to

Page 631

achieve the orderly and expeditious disposition of cases.4 That it has long gone unquestioned is apparent not only from the many state court decisions sustaining such dismissals,5 but even from language in this Court's opinion in Redfield v. Ystalyfera Iron Co., 110 U.S. 174, 176.6 It also has the sanction of wide usage among the District Courts.7 It would require a much clearer expression of

Page 632

purpose than Rule 41(b) provides for us to assume that it was intended to abrogate so well acknowledged a proposition.

Nor does the absence of notice as to the possibility of dismissal or the failure to hold an adversary hearing necessarily render such a dismissal void. It is true, of course, that

the fundamental requirement of due process is an opportunity to be heard upon such notice and proceedings as are adequate to safeguard the right for which the constitutional protection is invoked.

Anderson National Bank v. Luckett, 321 U.S. 233, 246. But this does not mean that every order entered without notice and a preliminary adversary hearing offends due process. The adequacy of notice and hearing respecting [82 S.Ct. 1390] proceedings that may affect a party's rights turns, to a considerable extent, on the knowledge which the circumstances show such party may be taken to have of the consequences of his own conduct. The circumstances here were such as to dispense with the necessity for advance notice and hearing.

In addition, the availability of a corrective remedy such as is provided by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) -- which authorizes the reopening of cases in which final orders have been inadvisedly entered -- renders the lack of prior notice of less consequence. Petitioner never sought to avail himself of the escape hatch provided by Rule 60(b).

Page 633

Accordingly, when circumstances make such action appropriate, a District Court may dismiss a complaint for failure to prosecute even without affording notice of its intention to do so or providing an adversary hearing before acting. Whether such an order can stand on appeal depends not on power, but on whether it was within the permissible range of the court's discretion.8

II

On this record, we are unable to say that the District Court's dismissal of this action for failure to prosecute, as evidenced only partly by the failure of petitioner's counsel to appear at a duly scheduled pretrial conference, amounted to an abuse of discretion. It was certainly within the bounds of permissible discretion for the court to conclude that the telephone excuse offered by petitioner's counsel was inadequate to explain his failure to attend. And it could reasonably be inferred from his absence, as well as from the drawn-out history of the litigation (see...

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