Herb v. Pitcairn Belcher v. Louisville Co

Decision Date05 February 1945
Docket NumberNos. 24,25,s. 24
Citation65 S.Ct. 459,89 L.Ed. 789,324 U.S. 117
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Roberts P. Elam, of St. Louis, Mo., for petitioners.

Mr. Bruce A. Campbell, of East St. Louis, Ill., for respondents.

Mr. Justice JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

Each of these petitioners has made an abortive attempt to maintain an action in a City Court of Illinois on a cause of action alleged under the Federal Employers' Liability Act, 45 U.S.C.A. § 51 et seq. As their calls upon us for relief present the same questions, in granting certiorari we consolidated the cases for argument. 321 U.S. 759, 64 S.Ct. 786.

Herb alleged injury while employed as a switchman on the Wabash Railroad at or near the City of Decatur, Mason County, Illinois, on November 23, 1936. He filed complaint under the Federal Act in the City Court of Granite City, Madison County, Illinois, in December of 1937. A verdict of $30,000 was returned, which the trial court set aside. Further proceedings in the Appellate Court and the Supreme Court resulted in remand to the City Court. 377 Ill. 405, 36 N.E.2d 555. On March 16, 1942, in other cases, the Supreme Court of Illinois decided that, under the Illinois Constitution, a city court is without jurisdiction in any case where the cause of action arose outside the city where the court is located. Werner v. Illinois Central R. Co., 379 Ill. 559, 42 N.E.2d 82; Mitchell v. Louisville & N.R. Co., 379 Ill. 522, 42 N.E.2d 86. When these decisions were rendered, plaintiff moved in the City Court for a change of venue, under the Illinois Venue Statute, to the Circuit Court of Madison County, a court of general jurisdiction. Meanwhile the two-year period within which an action could be instituted under the Employers' Liability Act had long expired. The motion for change of venue was granted and the papers certified and transferred accordingly. The defendant, limiting appearance for the sole and only purpose of the motion, moved, in the Circuit Court, to dismiss on the grounds that the City Court had no jurisdiction either to entertain or to transfer the case; that, since all proceedings theretofore were ut- terly void, no action was pending or properly commenced by the City Court process, nor by the transfer; that, since no action had been commenced in a court of competent jurisdiction, any right under the Federal Act had expired by its limitation, which provided that 'No action shall be maintained under this Act unless commenced within two years from the day the cause of action accrued.' 35 Stat. 66, 45 U.S.C. § 56, 45 U.S.C.A. § 56.1 The Circuit Court granted the motion to dismiss and the Supreme Court of Illinois affirmed. Its affirmance is here claimed to involve a federal question, erroneously decided.

Belcher alleged that he was a switchman on the Louisville & Nashville Railroad in its yards at Nashville, Tennessee, where he was injured on February 15, 1939. He filed his complaint on June 22, 1940, in the City Court of East St. Louis, Illinois. The answer joined issue generally and pleaded a release and satisfaction. Reply admitted execution in Nashville, Tennessee, of the document which defendant pleaded, but set up facts in avoidance. On trial a verdict of $20,000 was returned. The trial court set it aside, holding that the evidence did not warrant the verdict. This was on September 18, 1941, and at this stage of the litigation the Supreme Court of Illinois handed down its decisions of March 16, 1942 holding city courts without jurisdiction of causes arising outside their territorial jurisdiction. The plaintiff moved in City Court that venue be changed to Circuit Court of St. Clair County, Illinois, and the motion was granted. The statute of limitations on the commencement of the action at this time had run. Defendant made appearance limited to the purpose of moving to dismiss. The case was dismissed by the Circuit Court, and the dismissal was sustained by the Supreme Court of Illinois, in an opinion which adopted the opinion in the companion case.

First. Whether any case is pending in the Illinois courts is a question to be determined by Illinois law, as interpreted by the Illinois Supreme Court. For as we have said of the Federal Employers' Liability Act, 'we deem it well to observe that there is not here involved any attempt by Congress to enlarge or regulate the jurisdiction of state courts, or to control or affect their modes of procedure, but only a question of the duty of such a court, when its ordinary jurisdiction, as prescribed by local laws, is appropriate to the occasion, and is invoked in conformity with those laws, to take cognizance of an action to enforce a right of civil recovery arising under the act of Congress, and susceptible of adjudication according to the prevailing rules of procedure.' Mondou v. New York, N.H. & H.R. Co., 223 U.S. 1, 56, 57, 32 S.Ct. 169, 178, 56 L.Ed. 327, 38 L.R.A.,N.S., 44. 'As to the grant of jurisdiction in the Employers' Liability Act, that statute does not purport to require State Courts to entertain suits arising under it but only to empower them to do so, so far as the authority of the United States is concerned. * * * But there is nothing in the Act of Congress that purports to force a duty upon such Courts as against an otherwise valid excuse.' Douglas v. New York, N.H. & H.R. Co., 279 U.S. 377, 387, 388, 49 S.Ct. 355, 356, 73 L.Ed. 747. And see Chambers v. Baltimore & Ohio R. Co., 207 U.S. 142, 148, 149, 28 S.Ct. 34, 35, 36, 52 L.Ed. 143; St. Louis I.M. & S.R. Co. v. Taylor, 210 U.S. 281, 28 S.Ct. 616, 52 L.Ed. 1061; John v. Paullin, 231 U.S. 583, 34 S.Ct. 178, 58 L.Ed. 381.

The plight of petitioners is not due to any failure of the State of Illinois to provide forums adequate for the hearing of their cases under the federal statute. The state provides a system of circuit courts sitting in each of its counties which have general and unlimited original jurisdiction at law and in equity. These were open to the petitioners, but they chose instead to file their complaints in city courts. It would not be open for us to say that the state in setting up a local court could not limit its jurisdiction to actions arising within the city for which it is established.

When the Supreme Court held these courts without jurisdiction, plaintiffs moved in City Court under the Illinois Venue Act, Illinois Revised Statutes, 1941, ch. 146, § 36, to change venue to the Circuit Court. The City Courts granted the motion and transferred the papers to the Circuit Court. The defendants were served with no process issuing from the Circuit Court, entered no general appearance in Circuit Court. Instead, appearing specially, they moved to dismiss. In each case the motion was grounded in a complete absence of jurisdiction in the City Courts to begin, hear, or transfer the case. Each defendant denied that the Venue Act gave any power to the City Court to transfer, and each claimed that if it did, it would be unconstitutional under the State Constitution. Both also asserted that the federal statute of limitations had run at the time of purported change of venue because no suit had been 'commenced' in City Court within its meaning.

The Supreme Court of Illinois did not decide whether under the State Constitution the Venue Act was unconstitutional, apparently because it held the Act not to apply. It pointed out that 'both the subject matter and the parties must be before the court, and jurisdiction of the one without the other will not suffice; the two must concur or the judgment will be void in any case in which the court assumes to act.' (384 Ill. 237, 51 N.E.2d 277, 280.) The Circuit Court had served no summons on defendants, and they made no general appearance therein. On the other hand, the City Court admittedly had no jurisdiction of the subject matter. The Supreme Court used language which can mean that no valid proceeding was pending in either court as a matter of state law.2 We think that the Supreme Court probably has decided that as matter of Illinois law no action is pending against these defendants in any court and that all of the proceedings have been of no effect whatever.

The freedom of the state courts so to decide is, of course, subject to the qualification that the cause of action must not be discriminated against because it is a federal one. McKnett v. St. Louis & S.F.R. Co., 292 U.S. 230, 54 S.Ct. 690, 78 L.Ed. 1227. But we cannot say that the court below, in so far as it did hold the city courts without power, construed the state jurisdiction and venue laws in a discriminatory fashion. In Central Illinois Public Service Co. v. Industrial Commission, 293 Ill. 62, 127 N.E. 80, and Gill v. Lynch, 367 Ill. 203, 10 N.E.2d 812, which are cited to us by petitioners, the Illinois court did uphold the power of one court to transfer a cause to another court for certain purposes. One case, however, involved a proceeding begun in a circuit court, a court of general and unlimited jurisdiction. It issued a writ of certiorari to review a decision of the state compensation commission; transfer was made under the venue statute to another circuit court because the review statute required the proceeding to be in a county where the defendant resided or could be found. In the other case a receivership proceeding was transferred from county court to the circuit court because the county court was without equitable jurisdiction. Thus neither case involved the jurisdiction of a city court nor the application of the venue statutes to a city court. Therefore, the cases are too dissimilar in their facts to make this one appear to be a discrimination against a federal right whether or not they are wholly consistent with some of the language in the present case. And there is no other basis, in the opinion of the court or elsewhere, for the intimation that if petitioners' cases had been brought under...

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