Franco v. Mabe Trucking Co.

Decision Date08 July 2021
Docket NumberNo. 19-30316,19-30316
Citation3 F.4th 788
Parties David FRANCO, Plaintiff—Appellant, v. MABE TRUCKING COMPANY, INCORPORATED; Richard Agee ; National Interstate Insurance Company, Defendants—Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

Before King, Jones, and Dennis, Circuit Judges.

James L. Dennis, Circuit Judge:

David Franco sued Mabe Trucking Co. ("Mabe") in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas after Franco's car accident with a truck owned by Mabe and operated by a Mabe employee. The car-truck mishap had occurred in Louisiana a few miles from its border with Texas. The Texas federal district court concluded that Mabe lacked sufficient contacts with Texas to subject the company to personal jurisdiction in the state. However, the court found that it was in the interests of justice not to dismiss the case and instead transferred it to the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, the federal district court sitting in the district in which the accident occurred. But the Louisiana federal district court concluded that Franco's claims were untimely and granted summary judgment for Mabe. For the following reasons, we REVERSE and REMAND.

I.

On November 24, 2015, Franco was involved in a vehicular accident with a truck owned by Mabe and operated by Mabe's employee. The accident occurred in Louisiana, three miles from the Texas border. Franco filed suit against Mabe in the Eastern District of Texas on November 22, 2016, two days before the one-year anniversary of the accident, and Franco served Mabe on January 20, 2017. Finding that it lacked personal jurisdiction over Mabe due to Mabe's lack of significant contacts with Texas, the Texas federal district court transferred the case to the Western District of Louisiana, which would likely have possessed specific jurisdiction under the Louisiana long-arm statute to try claims against Mabe related to the accident because the court sat within the district in which the accident occurred.1 See Burger King Corp. v. Rudzewicz , 471 U.S. 462, 472, 105 S.Ct. 2174, 85 L.Ed.2d 528 (1985) (noting that a court's exercising specific jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant is constitutional when a suit arises out of the defendant's contacts with the forum state). The Texas district court magistrate judge explained: "Because the Court lacks personal jurisdiction over [Mabe], and hence venue under § 1391(b)(1) is improper, the Court finds it suitable in the ‘interests of justice’ to transfer the case to the Western District of Louisiana, the district where the accident occurred. See 28 U.S.C. § 1406(a)."2

Mabe moved for summary judgment in the Louisiana district court, arguing that Franco's claims had prescribed under Louisiana law.3 See LA. CIV. CODE arts. 3492, 3462. Louisiana Civil Code Article 3492 establishes a one-year prescriptive period for delictual actions like the one Franco brought against Mabe. Article 3462 provides that prescription is interrupted when a party files suit "in a court of competent jurisdiction and venue"; if a party files suit in a court of incompetent jurisdiction or improper venue, however, prescription is interrupted "only as to a defendant served by process within the prescriptive period." LA. CIV. CODE art. 3462. Mabe argued that Franco's claims were prescribed because he filed suit in the Texas district court, which was an incompetent court, and failed to serve Mabe within the one-year prescriptive period.

The Western District of Louisiana court initially denied Mabe's motion, concluding that 28 U.S.C. § 1631 rendered Franco's claims timely. Under § 1631, when a federal "court finds that there is a want of jurisdiction" and that a transfer would be "in the interest of justice," "the court ... shall transfer" the action to another court "in which the action could have been brought" and the transferred action "shall proceed as if it had been filed in ... the court to which it was transferred ... on the date it was actually filed in ... the court from which it was transferred." The Louisiana district court concluded that the transfer from the Texas district court was a § 1631 transfer in "all but name," and therefore the case must be treated "as if" it had been filed in the Western District of Louisiana on November 22, 2016, which is within Louisiana's one-year prescriptive period.

On Mabe's motion for reconsideration, however, a different presiding judge of the Louisiana district court reversed the ruling. The court reasoned that § 1631 was not intended to govern prescription and that Article 3462 is a substantive Louisiana law that controlled the diversity action under the doctrine of Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins , 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188, (1938). The court therefore concluded that Franco's claims were prescribed, entered judgment for Mabe, and dismissed Franco's claims with prejudice. This appeal followed.

II.

We must first determine whether the Western District of Louisiana properly applied § 1631 to the transferred case. The Eastern District of Texas cited only § 1406(a) when it transferred the case. If the transfer was governed by only § 1406(a) and not § 1631, then § 1631 ’s interaction with Louisiana's prescriptive period is not at issue here. If the case was transferred in accordance with § 1631, however, we must next evaluate § 1631 ’s interaction with Louisiana law to determine whether the Louisiana federal district court properly granted Mabe summary judgment on the basis that Franco's claims are prescribed. We review a district court's grant of summary judgment and issues of statutory interpretation de novo . Romero v. City of Grapevine , 888 F.3d 170, 175 (5th Cir. 2018) ; In re Glenn , 900 F.3d 187, 189 (5th Cir. 2018).

A.
1.

We begin by addressing whether § 1631 is relevant when a district court determines that there is a lack of personal, as opposed to subject-matter, jurisdiction and the interests of justice demand transfer. Mabe argues that § 1631 applies only when a court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction. Our court has not yet had occasion to decide this question. See Bentz v. Recile , 778 F.2d 1026, 1028 n.5 (5th Cir. 1985) (noting the issue but explaining that we need not reach it). If Mabe is correct, there is no need for us to address further whether § 1631 applies to this transfer, for it is undisputed that the Eastern District of Texas possessed subject-matter jurisdiction over Franco's claim. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a) (granting district courts original diversity jurisdiction).

"The task of statutory interpretation begins and, if possible, ends with the language of the statute." Trout Point Lodge, Ltd. v. Handshoe , 729 F.3d 481, 486 (5th Cir. 2013). "When the language is plain, we ‘must enforce the statute's plain meaning, unless absurd.’ " Id. (quoting In re Nowlin , 576 F.3d 258, 261-62 (5th Cir. 2009) ); see also BedRoc Ltd. v. United States , 541 U.S. 176, 183, 124 S.Ct. 1587, 158 L.Ed.2d 338 (2004) ("The preeminent canon of statutory interpretation requires us to ‘presume that the legislature says in a statute what it means and means in a statute what it says there.’ " (alteration omitted) (quoting Conn. Nat'l Bank v. Germain , 503 U.S. 249, 253-54, 112 S.Ct. 1146, 117 L.Ed.2d 391 (1992) )).

Section 1631 states:

Whenever a civil action is filed in a court as defined in section 610 of this title ... and that court finds that there is a want of jurisdiction, the court shall, if it is in the interest of justice, transfer such action or appeal to any other such court ... in which the action or appeal could have been brought at the time it was filed ..., and the action or appeal shall proceed as if it had been filed in ... the court to which it is transferred on the date upon which it was actually filed in ... the court from which it is transferred.

28 U.S.C. § 1631.

The text does not confine itself to personal or subject-matter jurisdiction, but instead "a want of jurisdiction" generally. Black's Law Dictionary defines "want of jurisdiction" to encompass a lack of subject-matter jurisdiction or a lack of personal jurisdiction. See WANT OF JURISDICTION , Black's Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019) ("A court's lack of power to act in a particular way or to give certain kinds of relief. A court ... may lack authority over a person or the subject matter of a lawsuit ...."). The entry for "jurisdiction" also includes sub-entries for both subject-matter jurisdiction ("Jurisdiction over the nature of the case and the type of relief sought") and personal jurisdiction ("A court's power to bring a person into its adjudicative process"). See JURISDICTION , Black's Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019). Moreover, Congress used "subject-matter jurisdiction" elsewhere in Title 28 and could have similarly restricted § 1631 ’s ambit if it so wished. See, e.g. , 28 U.S.C. § 1390(a) ("[T]he term ‘venue’ refers to the geographic specification of the proper court or courts for the litigation of a civil action that is within the subject-matter jurisdiction of the district courts in general."); Lozano v. Montoya Alvarez , 572 U.S. 1, 16, 134 S.Ct. 1224, 188 L.Ed.2d 200 (2014) (explaining that when legislators did not adopt "obvious alternative" language, "the natural implication is that they did not intend" the alternative). Accordingly, the plain text of § 1631 indicates that it may apply when a district court finds that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, personal jurisdiction, or both.

The historical context of § 1631 ’s enactment also suggests that it was intended to address situations in which a...

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