Robertson v. Wegmann, No. 77-178

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtMARSHALL
PartiesWillard E. ROBERTSON, Petitioner, v. Edward F. WEGMANN, Executor of the Estate of Clay L. Shaw, et al
Decision Date31 May 1978
Docket NumberNo. 77-178

436 U.S. 584
98 S.Ct. 1991
56 L.Ed.2d 554
Willard E. ROBERTSON, Petitioner,

v.

Edward F. WEGMANN, Executor of the Estate of Clay L. Shaw, et al.

No. 77-178.
Argued March 21, 1978.
Decided May 31, 1978.
Syllabus

One Shaw filed an action for damages and injunctive relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against petitioner and others, claiming that they had deprived him of his constitutional rights. Upon the death of Shaw before trial, respondent executor of his estate was substituted as plaintiff. Petitioner and the other defendants filed a motion to dismiss on the ground that Shaw's death abated the action. The District Court denied the motion. The court held that the applicable survivorship rule was governed by 42 U.S.C. § 1988, which provides that the jurisdiction conferred on district courts for the protection of civil rights shall be exercised conformably with federal laws so far as such laws are suitable "but in all cases where they . . . are deficient in the provisions necessary to furnish suitable remedies . . . the common law, as modified and changed by the constitution and statutes of the [forum] State" shall apply as long as they are "not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States." The court found the federal civil rights laws to be "deficient in not providing for survival," and then held that under Louisiana law an action like Shaw's would survive only in favor of a spouse, children, parents, or siblings, none of whom was alive at the time of Shaw's death, but refused to apply the state law, finding it inconsistent with federal law. In place of the state law the court created "a federal common law of survival in civil rights actions in favor of the personal representative of the deceased." The Court of Appeals affirmed. Held: The District Court should have adopted the Louisiana survivorship law, which would have caused Shaw's action to abate. Pp. 590-595.

(a) There is nothing in § 1983, despite its broad sweep, to indicate that a state law causing abatement of a particular action should invariably be ignored in favor of a rule of absolute survivorship. No claim is made that Louisiana's survivorship laws do not in general comport with the underlying policies of § 1983 or that Louisiana's decision to restrict certain survivorship rights to the relations specified above is unreasonable. Pp. 590-592.

(b) The goal of compensating those injured by a deprivation of rights provides no basis for requiring compensation of one who is merely suing

Page 585

as decedent's executor. And, given that most Louisiana actions survive the plaintiff's death, the fact that a particular action might abate would not adversely affect § 1983's role in preventing official illegality, at least in situations such as the one here where there is no claim that the illegality caused plaintiff's death. P. 592.

545 F.2d 980, reversed.

Malcolm W. Monroe, New Orleans, La., for petitioner.

Edward F. Wegmann, New Orleans, La., for respondents.

Mr. Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

In early 1970, Clay L. Shaw filed a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. Four years later, before trial had commenced, Shaw died. The question presented is whether the District Court was required to adopt as federal law a Louisiana survivorship statute, which would have caused this action to abate, or was free instead to create a federal common-law rule allowing the action to survive. Resolution of this question turns on whether the state statute is "inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States." 42 U.S.C. § 1988.1

Page 586

I

In 1969, Shaw was tried in a Louisiana state court on charges of having participated in a conspiracy to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. He was acquitted by a jury but within days was arrested on charges of having committed perjury in his testimony at the conspiracy trial. Alleging that these prosecutions were undertaken in bad faith, Shaw's § 1983 complaint named as defendants the then District Attorney of Orleans Parish, Jim Garrison, and five other persons, including petitioner Willard E. Robertson, who was alleged to have lent financial support to Garrison's investigation of Shaw through an organization known as "Truth or Consequences." On Shaw's application, the District Court enjoined prosecution of the perjury action, Shaw v. Garrison, 328 F.Supp. 390 (1971), and the Court of Appeals affirmed, 467 F.2d 113 (CA5 1972).2

Since Shaw had filed an action seeking damages, the parties continued with discovery after the injunction issued. Trial was set for November 1974, but in August 1974 Shaw died. The executor of his estate, respondent Edward F. Wegmann (hereafter respondent), moved to be substituted as plaintiff,

Page 587

and the District Court granted the motion.3 Petitioner and other defendants then moved to dismiss the action on the ground that it had abated on Shaw's death.

The District Court denied the motion to dismiss. It began its analysis by referring to 42 U.S.C. § 1988; this statute provides that, when federal law is "deficient" with regard to "suitable remedies" in federal civil rights actions, federal courts are to be governed by

"the common law, as modified and changed by the constitution and statutes of the State wherein the court having jurisdiction of [the] civil . . . cause is held, so far as the same is not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States."

The court found the federal civil rights laws to be "deficient in not providing for survival." Shaw v. Garrison, 391 F.Supp. 1353, 1361 (1975). It then held that, under Louisiana law, an action like Shaw's would survive only in favor of a spouse, children, parents, or siblings. Since no person with the requisite relationship to Shaw was alive at the time of his death, his action would have abated had state law been adopted as the federal rule. But the court refused to apply state law, finding it inconsistent with federal law, and in its place created "a federal common law of survival in civil rights actions in favor of the personal representative of the deceased." Id., at 1368.

On an interlocutory appeal taken pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. The court first noted that all parties agreed that, "if Louisiana law applies, Shaw's § 1983 claim

Page 588

abates." 545 F.2d 980, 982 (1977). Like the District Court, the Court of Appeals applied 42 U.S.C. § 1988, found federal law "deficient" with regard to survivorship, and held Louisiana law "inconsistent with the broad remedial purposes embodied in the Civil Rights Acts." 545 F.2d, at 983. It offered a number of justifications for creating a federal common-law rule allowing respondent to continue Shaw's action: Such a rule would better further the policies underlying § 1983, 545 F.2d, at 984-985; would "foste[r] the uniform application of the civil rights laws," id., at 985; and would be consistent with "[t]he marked tendency of the federal courts to allow actions to survive in other areas of particular federal concern," ibid. The court concluded that, "as a matter of federal common law, a § 1983 action instituted by a plaintiff prior to his death survives in favor of his estate." Id., at 987.

We granted certiorari, 434 U.S. 983, 98 S.Ct. 607, 54 L.Ed.2d 477 (1977), and we now reverse.

II

As both courts below held, and as both parties here have assumed, the decision as to the applicable survivorship rule is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 1988. This statute recognizes that in certain areas "federal law is unsuited or insufficient 'to furnish suitable remedies' "; federal law simply does not "cover every issue that may arise in the context of a federal civil rights action." Moor v. Co nty of Alameda, 411 U.S. 693, 703, 702, 93 S.Ct. 1785, 1792, 36 L.Ed.2d 596 (1973), quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1988. When federal law is thus "deficient," § 1988 instructs us to turn to "the common law, as modified and changed by the constitution and statutes of the [forum] State," as long as these are "not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States." See n. 1, supra. Regardless of the source of the law applied in a particular case, however, it is clear that the ultimate rule adopted under § 1988 " 'is a federal rule responsive to the need whenever a federal right is impaired.' "

Page 589

Moor v. County of Alameda, supra, at 703, 93 S.Ct. at 1792, quoting Sullivan v. Little Hunting Park, Inc., 396 U.S. 229, 240, 90 S.Ct. 400, 406, 24 L.Ed.2d 386 (1969).

As we noted in Moor v. County of Alameda, and as was recognized by both courts below, one specific area not covered by federal law is that relating to "the survival of civil rights actions under § 1983 upon the death of either the plaintiff or defendant." 411 U.S., at 702 n. 14, 93 S.Ct., at 1792.4 State statutes governing the survival of state actions do exist, however. These statutes, which vary widely with regard to both the types of claims that survive and the parties as to whom survivorship is allowed, see W. Prosser, Law of Torts 900-901 (4th ed. 1971), were intended to modify the simple, if harsh, 19th-century common-law rule: "[A]n injured party's personal claim was [always] extinguished . . . upon the death of either the injured party himself or the alleged wrongdoer." Moor v. County of Alameda, supra, at 702 n. 14, 93 S.Ct. at 1792; see Michigan Central R. Co. v. Vreeland, 227 U.S. 59, 67, 33 S.Ct. 192, 194, 57 L.Ed.2d 417 (1913). Under § 1988, this state statutory law, modifying the common law,5

Page 590

provides the principal reference point in determining survival of civil rights actions, subject to the important proviso that state law may not be applied when it is "inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States." Because of this proviso, the courts below refused to adopt...

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654 practice notes
  • Thomas v. Frederick, Civ. A. No. 87-1950.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Western District of Louisiana
    • June 4, 1991
    ...look to state law to the extent it is "not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States." In Robertson v. Wegmann, 436 U.S. 584, 98 S.Ct. 1991, 56 766 F. Supp. 561 L.Ed.2d 554 (1978), the Supreme Court specifically held that state law should be applied to resolve survivo......
  • Dacosta v. City of N.Y., 15–CV–5174
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of New York)
    • November 8, 2017
    ...by deprivation of federal rights and prevention of abuses of power by those acting under color of state law." Robertson v. Wegmann , 436 U.S. 584, 590–91, 98 S.Ct. 1991, 56 L.Ed.2d 554 (1978).Congressional policy encourages attorneys to file lawsuits asserting valid Section 1983 claims. Con......
  • Endl v. State, Civ. No. 2:12–3564 (KM)(MAH).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey
    • March 13, 2014
    ...Such a Section 1983 cause of action will survive the complainant's death if it would do so under state law. See Robertson v. Wegmann, 436 U.S. 584, 593, 98 S.Ct. 1991, 56 L.Ed.2d 554 (1978); Giles v. Campbell, 698 F.3d 153, 156 (3d Cir.2012). Under New Jersey law, an executor or administrat......
  • Smith v. No. 2 Galesburg Crown Finance Corp., Nos. 78-2145
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • January 15, 1980
    ...a matter of state law, at least in the first instance. This has been made clear recently in Robertson v. Wegmann, 436 U.S. Page 414 584, 98 S.Ct. 1991, 56 L.Ed.2d 554 (1978). However, TILA contains no provision similar to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. We are not aware of any cases which have directly c......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
653 cases
  • Thomas v. Frederick, Civ. A. No. 87-1950.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Western District of Louisiana
    • June 4, 1991
    ...look to state law to the extent it is "not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States." In Robertson v. Wegmann, 436 U.S. 584, 98 S.Ct. 1991, 56 766 F. Supp. 561 L.Ed.2d 554 (1978), the Supreme Court specifically held that state law should be applied to resolve survivo......
  • Dacosta v. City of N.Y., 15–CV–5174
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of New York)
    • November 8, 2017
    ...by deprivation of federal rights and prevention of abuses of power by those acting under color of state law." Robertson v. Wegmann , 436 U.S. 584, 590–91, 98 S.Ct. 1991, 56 L.Ed.2d 554 (1978).Congressional policy encourages attorneys to file lawsuits asserting valid Section 1983 claims. Con......
  • Endl v. State, Civ. No. 2:12–3564 (KM)(MAH).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey
    • March 13, 2014
    ...Such a Section 1983 cause of action will survive the complainant's death if it would do so under state law. See Robertson v. Wegmann, 436 U.S. 584, 593, 98 S.Ct. 1991, 56 L.Ed.2d 554 (1978); Giles v. Campbell, 698 F.3d 153, 156 (3d Cir.2012). Under New Jersey law, an executor or administrat......
  • Smith v. No. 2 Galesburg Crown Finance Corp., Nos. 78-2145
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • January 15, 1980
    ...a matter of state law, at least in the first instance. This has been made clear recently in Robertson v. Wegmann, 436 U.S. Page 414 584, 98 S.Ct. 1991, 56 L.Ed.2d 554 (1978). However, TILA contains no provision similar to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. We are not aware of any cases which have directly c......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 books & journal articles
  • HORIZONTAL CHOICE OF LAW IN FEDERAL COURT.
    • United States
    • University of Pennsylvania Law Review Vol. 169 Nbr. 8, August 2021
    • August 1, 2021
    ...(17) Id. (18) See infra notes 145-46 and accompanying text. (19) See infra notes 134-35 and accompanying text. (20) Robertson v. Wegmann, 436 U.S. 584, 598 (1978) (Blackmun, J., dissenting) (discussing the Rules of Decision Act); see Burbank, Interjurisdictional Preclusion, supra note 2 (qu......

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