Salve Regina College v. Russell

Decision Date20 March 1991
Docket NumberNo. 89-1629,89-1629
Citation499 U.S. 225,111 S.Ct. 1217,113 L.Ed.2d 190
PartiesSALVE REGINA COLLEGE, Petitioner v. Sharon L. RUSSELL
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Respondent Russell filed a diversity action in the District Court, alleging, inter alia, that petitioner college, located in Rhode Island, had breached an implied agreement to educate her when it asked her to withdraw from its nursing program for failing to meet certain weight loss commitments. The court denied petitioner's motion for a directed verdict, concluding that the Rhode Island Supreme Court would apply the commercial doctrine of substantial performance in an academic setting, such that Russell could prevail even though she had not fully complied with the contract's terms. The jury returned a verdict for Russell, which the Court of Appeals affirmed. Applying the appellate deference that it customarily accords to interpretations of state law made by federal judges of that State, the Court of Appeals found that the District Court's state-law determination did not constitute reversible error.

Held: Courts of appeals must review de novo district courts' state-law determinations. Pp. 231-240.

(a) The general rule of independent appellate review of legal issues best serves the dual goals of doctrinal coherence and economy of judicial administration. Courts of appeals are structurally suited to the collaborative juridical process that promotes decisional accuracy. They are able to devote their primary attention to legal issues. They have the advantage of refined briefs which bring to bear on the legal issues more information and more comprehensive analysis than was provided to the district judge. And they employ multijudge panels that permit reflective dialogue and collective judgment. P. 231-233.

(b) Departure from the rule of independent appellate review is not warranted by the exercise of diversity jurisdiction. Appellate deference to the district court's state-law determination is inconsistent with the aims of Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188 to discourage forum shopping and to avoid inequitable administration of the laws, since it invites divergent development of state law among the federal trial courts within a single State and creates a dual system of enforcement of state-created rights, in which the substantive rule applied to a dispute may depend on the choice of forum. Such deference is also contrary to this Court's cases decided after Erie. See, e.g., New York Life Ins. Co. v. Jackson, 304 U.S. 261, 58 S.Ct. 871, 82 L.Ed. 1329. Pp. 233-235.

(c) Russell's argument that appellate courts professing adherence to the deference rule actually are reviewing de novo the district court state-law determinations is rejected. Courts of appeals that profess deference are, in fact, deferring. When de novo review is compelled, no form of appellate deference is acceptable. Russell's argument that district judges are better arbiters of unsettled state law because they have exposure to the judicial system of the State in which they sit is based on overbroad generalizations and is foreclosed by this Court's decision in Erie. Pp. 235-239.

890 F.2d 484 (CA1 1989), reversed and remanded.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which MARSHALL, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. REHNQUIST, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which WHITE and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. ----.

Steven E. Snow, Providence, R.I., for petitioner.

Edward T. Hogan, East Providence, R.I., for respondent.

Justice BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The concept of a federal general common law, lurking (to use Justice Holmes' phrase) as a "brooding omnipresence in the sky," was questioned for some time before being firmly rejected in Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188 (1938). See Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen, 244 U.S. 205, 222, 37 S.Ct. 524, 531, 61 L.Ed. 1086 (1917) (Holmes, J., dissenting); Black & White Taxicab & Transfer Co. v. Brown & Yellow Taxicab & Transfer Co., 276 U.S. 518, 533, 48 S.Ct. 404, 409, 72 L.Ed. 681 (1928) (dissenting opinion). Erie mandates that a federal court sitting in diversity apply the substantive law of the forum State, absent a federal statutory or constitutional directive to the contrary. 304 U.S., at 78, 58 S.Ct., at 822. See also 28 U.S.C. § 1652 ("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"). In decisions after Erie, this Court made clear that state law is to be determined in the same manner as a federal court resolves an evolving issue of federal law: "with the aid of such light as [is] afforded by the materials for decision at hand, and in accordance with the applicable principles for determining state law." Meredith v. Winter Haven, 320 U.S. 228, 238, 64 S.Ct. 7, 13, 88 L.Ed. 9 (1943). See also Ruhlin v. New York Life Ins. Co., 304 U.S. 202, 208-209, 58 S.Ct. 860, 862, 82 L.Ed. 1290 (1938) ("Application of the 'State law' to the present case . . . does not present the disputants with duties difficult or strange").

In this case, we must decide specifically whether a federal court of appeals may review a district court's determination of state law under a standard less probing than that applied to a determination of federal law.


The issue presented arises out of a contract dispute between a college and one of its students. Petitioner Salve Regina College is an institution of higher education located in Newport, R.I. Respondent Sharon L. Russell was admitted to the college and began her studies as a freshman in 1982. The following year, respondent sought admission to the college's nursing department in order to pursue a bachelor of science degree in nursing. She was accepted by the department and began her nursing studies in the fall of 1983.

Respondent, who was 5'6" tall, weighed in excess of 300 pounds when she was accepted in the nursing program. Immediately after the 1983 school year began, respondent's weight became a topic of commentary and concern by officials of the nursing program. Respondent's first year in the program was marked by a series of confrontations and negotiations concerning her obesity and its effect upon her ability to complete the clinical requirements safely and satisfactorily. During her junior year, respondent signed a document that was designated as a "contract" and conditioned her further participation in the nursing program upon weekly attendance at a weight-loss seminar and a realized average loss of two pounds per week. When respondent failed to meet these commitments, she was asked to withdraw from the program and did so. She transferred to a nursing program at another college, but had to repeat her junior year in order to satisfy the transferee institution's 2-year residency requirement. As a consequence, respondent's nursing education took five years rather than four. She also underwent surgery for her obesity. In 1987, respondent successfully completed her nursing education, and she is now a registered nurse.

Soon after leaving Salve Regina College, respondent filed this civil action in the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island. She asserted, among others, claims based on (1) intentional infliction of emotional distress, (2) invasion of privacy, and (3) nonperformance by the college of its implied agreement to educate respondent.1 Subject-matter jurisdiction in the District Court was based on diversity of citizenship. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332. The parties agree that the law of Rhode Island applies to all substantive aspects of the action. See Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, supra.

At the close of plaintiff-respondent's case-in-chief, the District Court directed a verdict for the individual defendants on all three of the remaining claims, and for the college on the claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy. App. 82. The court, however, denied the college's motion for a directed verdict on the breach-of-contract claim, reasoning that "a legitimate factual issue" remained concerning whether "there was substantial performance by the plaintiff in her overall contractual relationship at Salve Regina." Id., at 88.

At the close of all the evidence, the college renewed its motion for a directed verdict. It argued that under Rhode Island law the strict commercial doctrine of substantial performance did not apply in the general academic context. Therefore, according to petitioner, because respondent admitted she had not fulfilled the terms of the contract, the college was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

The District Court denied petitioner's motion. Id., at 92. Acknowledging that the Supreme Court of Rhode Island, to that point, had limited the application of the substantial-performance doctrine to construction contracts, the District Court nonetheless concluded, as a matter of law, that the Supreme Court of Rhode Island would apply that doctrine to the facts of respondent's case. Id., at 90-91. The Federal District Judge based this conclusion, in part, on his observation that "I was a state trial judge for 18 and 1/2 years, and I have a feel for what the Rhode Island Supreme Court will do or won't do." Id., at 91. Accordingly, the District Court submitted the breach-of-contract claim to the jury. The court instructed the jury:

"The law provides that substantial and not exact performance accompanied by good faith is what is required in a case of a contract of this type. It is not necessary that the plaintiff have fully and completely performed every item specified in the contract between the parties. It is sufficient if there has been substantial performance, not necessarily full performance, so long as the substantial...

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