Huff v. Shumate, No. 02-CV-1047-D.

CourtUnited States District Courts. 10th Circuit. District of Wyoming
Writing for the CourtDownes
Citation360 F.Supp.2d 1197
PartiesRonald D. HUFF, Individually and as Personal Representative for the Estate of Patricia Huff, Deceased, Plaintiff, v. Patricia E. SHUMATE, Defendant.
Decision Date30 September 2004
Docket NumberNo. 02-CV-1047-D.

Page 1197

360 F.Supp.2d 1197
Ronald D. HUFF, Individually and as Personal Representative for the Estate of Patricia Huff, Deceased, Plaintiff,
v.
Patricia E. SHUMATE, Defendant.
No. 02-CV-1047-D.
United States District Court, D. Wyoming.
September 30, 2004.

Page 1198

COPYRIGHT MATERIAL OMITTED

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Peter J Young, Rick L Koehmstedt, Schwartz Bon Walker & Studer, Casper, WY, for Plaintiff.

Hampton K O'Neill, Timothy Michael Stubson, Brown Drew & Massey, Casper, WY, Melinda D Godwin, Rothgerber Johnson & Lyons, Thomas G Gorman, Thomas A Nicholas, III, Hirst & Applegate, Cheyenne, WY, for Defendant.

Jessica Rutzick, Rutzick Law Office, Jackson, WY, for Amicus.

David Delicath, Wyoming Attorney General, Cheyenne, WY, for Intervenor.

ORDER ON PLAINTIFF'S MOTION IN LIMINE CONCERNING SEAT BELT USAGE

DOWNES, District Judge.


This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff's motion in limine concerning the admissibility of evidence of seat belt usage. The Court has extensively reviewed all the materials submitted in support of and in opposition to the issue contained in this motion, including the briefs submitted by the parties, the State of Wyoming, and the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association regarding the constitutionality of WYO. STAT. ANN. § 31-5-1402(f). Having done so, and being otherwise fully advised, the Court FINDS and ORDERS as follows:

At the heart of this motion in limine and the ensuing motion to certify is whether this Court should apply a Wyoming

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statute prohibiting the introduction of evidence of seat belt nonuse in the above-captioned matter.1 The jurisdiction of this Court is properly invoked pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Following the Supreme Court's decision in Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188 (1938) and its progeny, district courts of the United States sitting in diversity follow a theoretically simple principle: federal courts are to apply state substantive law and federal procedural law. See Id. at 78, 58 S.Ct. 817; Id. at 92, 58 S.Ct. 817 (Reed, J., concurring); Hanna v. Plumer, 380 U.S. 460, 471-74, 85 S.Ct. 1136, 14 L.Ed.2d 8 (1965). Though the common name for the doctrine under which courts sitting in diversity choose between federal rules of decision and state law is the Erie doctrine, to consider this doctrine to inform all such choices is misleading. John Hart Ely, The Irrepressible Myth of Erie, 87 HARV. L. REV. 693, 693-98 (1974). At least three different basic texts, each of which contains a different standard, ultimately govern such choices: (1) the Constitution of the United States; (2) the Rules Enabling Act of 1934, 28 U.S.C. § 2072; and (3) the Rules of Decision Act of 1789, 28 U.S.C. § 1652.

Though the Constitution is always in the background in diversity cases, it only directly applies to the displacement

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of state law by a federal rule of decision when the federal rule is an act of Congress. Ely, supra at 700-06. Any act of Congress purporting to prescribe procedure for the federal judiciary in diversity cases is a valid exercise of Congress' power to do so as long as it is rational to treat the subject matter as procedure, and so long as the procedural rule does not offend some other limitation on Congress' powers. Wayman v. Southard, 10 Wheat. 1, 23 U.S. 1, 42-43, 6 L.Ed. 253 (1825); Hanna, 380 U.S. at 471-72, 85 S.Ct. 1136. See also Olin Guy Wellborn, III, The Federal Rules of Evidence and the Application of State Law in Federal Courts, 55 TEX. L. REV. 371, 398 (1977).

The Rules Enabling Act applies to all rules of decision promulgated thereunder, such as the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The Act provides in pertinent part:

(a) The Supreme Court shall have the power to prescribe general rules of practice and procedure and rules of evidence for cases in the United States district courts ... and courts of appeals.

(b) Such rules shall not abridge, enlarge or modify any substantive right.

28 U.S.C. § 2072. In cases involving a choice between the Rules of Civil Procedure and a state law, the Rules Enabling Act and cases construing it constitute the relevant standard. See e.g., Hanna v. Plumer, 380 U.S. 460, 85 S.Ct. 1136, 14 L.Ed.2d 8 (1965); Sibbach v. Wilson & Co., 312 U.S. 1, 61 S.Ct. 422, 85 L.Ed. 479 (1941). Under the Rules Enabling Act, a federal rule of decision is valid if it "really regulates procedure", Sibbach, 312 U.S. at 14, 61 S.Ct. 422, and does not "abridge, enlarge or modify any substantive right." 28 U.S.C. § 2072. Unlike the constitutional analysis, a rule promulgated under the Rules Enabling Act may be invalid even if it does regulate procedure, if it also operates to affect a substantive right. Wellborn, supra, at 399.

The Rules of Decision Act applies when the federal rule of decision competing with a state law is wholly judge-made. The Act provides in relevant part:

The laws of the several states, except where the Constitution or treaties of the United States or Acts of Congress otherwise require or provide, shall be regarded as rules of decision in civil actions in the courts of the United States, in cases where they apply.

28 U.S.C. § 1652. Choices between state law and federal judge-made law are governed by the Rules of Decision Act and cases construing it. See e.g., Erie R.R. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188 (1938). Unlike constitutional and Rules of Enabling Act analyses, Rules of Decision Act analysis does not resort to notions of substance and procedure at all. This is because the purposes of the Rules of Decision Act, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, are not only to prevent the frustration of state substantive policy, but also to ensure the outcome of litigation in the forum will not materially differ when it takes place in federal rather than state court. Hanna, 380 U.S. at 465-66, 468, 85 S.Ct. 1136; Guaranty Trust Co. v. York, 326 U.S. 99, 108-09, 65 S.Ct. 1464, 89 L.Ed. 2079 (1945). See also Wellborn, supra, at 399. Accordingly, the Rules of Decision Act applies only to situations where state law must apply because the federal court is without authority to make law. Of significance is the fact that a federal rule cannot be invalid under the Rules Enabling Act for modifying a state-created substantive right unless the state right would otherwise be applicable to the litigation under the Rules of Decision Act. Wellborn, supra, at 400.

With these concepts in mind, the Court now turns its attention to the

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Federal Rules of Evidence and their proper place within this framework. The Rules of Evidence were enacted directly by Congress. Act of Jan. 2, 1975, Pub. L. No. 93-595, 88 Stat. 1926. As such, their validity is assessed solely through application of the constitutional analysis described above. The consequence is surprising. Since the Rules of Decision Act is not applicable, a Rule of Evidence is not invalid even though its application in a diversity action would frustrate the judicially-interpreted twin aims of that Act. Moreover, since the Rules Enabling Act is not applicable, a Rule of Evidence is not invalid even though it may abridge, enlarge or modify a state-created substantive right. Under a constitutional analysis, that the Rules of Evidence are rationally classifiable as rules of procedure suffices to sustain their validity. Wellborn, supra, at 400. See also 22 Wright & Graham, Federal Practice and Procedure: Evidence § 5201 (characterizing the Federal Rules of Evidence as procedural).

Nevertheless, despite the federal courts' seemingly limitless authority to apply the Rules of Evidence regardless of the consequences, courts should take care not to apply them in a manner that would produce such drastic results. Moreover, such indiscriminate application would be inconsistent with the congressional intent behind the enactment of the Rules. Congress' intent in passing the Rules of Evidence was to avoid to the extent reasonably possible tampering with state substantive rights and policies.2 For instance, Congress intervened and postponed the effective date of the Rules of Evidence in part because in its view, state rules that ought to have been considered "substantive" were overridden by the Supreme Court's version of the Rules. Act of Mar. 30, 1973, Pub. L. No. 93-12, 87 Stat. 9 (suspending the effective date of the Rules in order to review them in detail). Specifically, Congress changed the Rules to effect conformity with state law on those aspects of the Court's version — the privilege rules — that were most vulnerable to challenges under subsection (b) of the Rules Enabling Act. Hearings on Proposed Rules of Evidence Before the Special Subcomm. on Reform of Federal Criminal Laws of the House Comm. on the Judiciary, 93d Cong., 1st Sess., ser. 2, at 142, 154-58, 171-73, 246, 331, 495 (1973); S. REP. NO. 1277, 93d Cong., 2d Sess. 6-7, 11 (1974); H.R. REP. NO. 650, 93d Cong., 1st Sess. 2, 9, 18 (1973). The major changes fashioned by Congress in the "privileges" area included the substitution of Rule 501 for the specific privilege rules of the Court's draft. Congress also made similar changes to Rule 601 on the competency of witnesses so as not to abrogate any state policy. Congress' actions from 1973 to 1975 in relation to the enactment of the Rules of Evidence closely resemble Congress' concerns for the preservation of substantive rights in 1934, as gleaned from the language of the Rules Enabling Act. Thus, to borrow from Wellborn, "while the `arguably procedural' test of the Constitution is the only operative check on the validity of the [Federal Rules of Evidence]," Wellborn, supra, at 402, "to rely on the modesty of the constitutional limitation on congressional action

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to extend a rule in derogation of state law would turn on its head the significance of Congress' role in intervening in the promulgation of the Rules." Id. at 406. At the very least then, the Rules Enabling Act's prohibition against...

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1 practice notes
  • Sims v. Great American Life Ins. Co., No. 04-5135.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (10th Circuit)
    • November 7, 2006
    ...proposition for which the evidence is submitted is not properly provable and, therefore, irrelevant to the claim.8 See Huff v. Shumate, 360 F.Supp.2d 1197 (D.Wyo.2004) (holding that although the Federal Rules of Evidence apply, the Rules nonetheless bow to state substantive policy based on ......
1 cases
  • Sims v. Great American Life Ins. Co., No. 04-5135.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (10th Circuit)
    • November 7, 2006
    ...proposition for which the evidence is submitted is not properly provable and, therefore, irrelevant to the claim.8 See Huff v. Shumate, 360 F.Supp.2d 1197 (D.Wyo.2004) (holding that although the Federal Rules of Evidence apply, the Rules nonetheless bow to state substantive policy based on ......

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