Van Dusen v. Barrack

Decision Date30 March 1964
Docket NumberNos. 56,80,s. 56
Citation11 L.Ed.2d 945,376 U.S. 612,84 S.Ct. 805
PartiesHon. Francis L. VAN DUSEN, United States District Judge, etc., et al., Petitioners, v. Roberta BARRACK, Administratrix, etc., et al. (two cases)
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Owen B. Rhoads, Philadelphia, Pa., for petitioners in No. 56.

Morton Hollander, Washington, D.C., for petitioners in No. 80.

John R. McConnell, Philadelphia, Pa, for respondents in both cases.

Mr. Justice GOLDBERG delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case involves the construction and application of § 1404(a) of the Judicial Code of 1948. Section 1404(a), which allows a 'change of venue' within the federal judicial system, provides that: 'For the convenience of parties and witnesses, in the interest of justice, a district court may transfer any civil action to any other district or division where it might have been brought.' 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a).

The facts, which need but brief statement here, reveal that the disputed change of venue is set against the background of an alleged mass tort. On October 4, 1960, shortly after departing from a Boston airport, a commercial airliner, scheduled to fly from Boston to Philadelphia, plunged into Boston Harbor. As a result of the crash, over 150 actions for personal injury and wrongful death have been instituted against the airline, various manufacturers, the United States, and, in some cases, the Massachusetts Port Authority. In most of these actions the plaintiffs have alleged that the crash resulted from the defendants' negligence in permitting the aircraft's engines to ingest some birds. More than 100 actions were brought in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, and more than 45 actions in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The present case concerns 40 of the wrongful death actions brought in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania by personal representatives of victims of the crash.1 The defendants, petitioners in this Court, moved under § 1404(a) to transfer these actions to the District of Massachusetts, where it was alleged that most of the witnesses resided and where over 100 other actions are pending. The District Court granted the motion, holding that the transfer was justified regardless of whether the transferred actions would be governed by the laws and choice-of-law rules of Pennsylvania or of Massachusetts. 204 F.Supp. 426. The District Court also specifically held that transfer was not precluded by the fact that the plaintiffs had not qualified under Massachusetts law to sue as representatives of the decedents. The plaintiffs, respondents in this Court, sought a writ of mandamus from the Court of Appeals and successfully contended that the District Court erred and should vacate its order of transfer. 309 F.2d 953. The Court of Appeals held that a § 1404(a) transfer could be granted only if at the time the suits were brought, the plaintiffs had qualified to sue in Massachusetts, the State of the transferee District Court. The Court of Appeals relied in part upon its interpretation of Rule 17(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.2

We granted certiorari to review important questions concerning the construction and operation of § 1404(a) 372 U.S. 964, 83 S.Ct. 1088, 10 L.Ed.2d 128. For reasons to be stated below, we hold that the judgment of the Court of Appeals must be reversed, that both the Court of Appeals and the District Court erred in their fundamental assumptions regarding the state law to be applied to an action transferred under § 1404(a), and that accordingly the case must be remanded to the District Court.3


Section 1404(a) reflects an increased desire to have federal civil suits tried in the federal system at the place called for in the particular case by considerations of convenience and justice.4 Thus, as the Court recognized in Continental Grain Co. v. Barge F.B.L.—585, 364 U.S. 19, 26, 27, 80 S.Ct. 1470, 1474, 1475, 4 L.Ed.2d 1540, the purpose of the section is to prevent the waste 'of time, energy and money' and 'to protect litigants, witnesses and the public against unnecessary inconvenience and expense * * *.' To this end it empowers a district court to transfer 'any civil action'5 to another district court if the transfer is warranted by the convenience of parties and witnesses and promotes the interest of justice. This transfer power is, however, expressly limited by the final clause of § 1404(a) restricting transfer to those federal districts in which the action 'might have been brought.' Although in the present case the plaintiffs were qualified to bring suit as personal representatives under Pennsylvania law (the law of the State of the transferor federal court), the Court of Appeals ruled that the defendants' transfer motion must be denied because at the time the suits were brought in Pennsylvania (the transferor forum) the complainants had not obtained the appointments requisite to initiate such actions in Massachusetts (the transferee forum). At the outset, therefore, we must consider whether the incapacity of the plaintiffs at the time they commenced their actions in the transferor forum to sue under the state law of the transferee forum renders the latter forum impermissible under the 'might-have-been-brought' limitation.

There is no question concerning the propriety either of venue or of jurisdiction in the District of Massachusetts, the proposed transferee forum. 6 The Court of Appeals conceded that it was 'quite likely' that the plaintiffs could have obtained ancillary appointment in Massachusetts but held this legally irrelevant. 309 F.2d, at 957—958. In concluding that the transfer could not be granted, the Court of Appeals relied upon Hoffman v. Blaski, 363 U.S. 335, 80 S.Ct. 1084, 4 L.Ed.2d 1254, as establishing that 'unless the plaintiff had an unqualified right to bring suit in the transferee forum at the time he filed his original complaint, transfer to that district is not authorized by § 1404(a).' 309 F.2d, at 957. (Emphasis in original.) The court found the analogy to Hoffman, particularly persuasive because it could 'perceive no basis in either logic or policy for making any distinction between the absence of venue in the transferee forum and prospective plaintiff's lack of capacity to sue there.' Ibid. In addition, the court held that the transfer must be denied because in actions by personal repre- sentatives 'Rule 17(b) Fed.R.Civ.P., requires the district court to refer to the law of the state in which it sits to determine capacity to sue.'7 Id., 309 F.2d at 958.

The defendants contend that the concluding phrase of § 1404(a)'where it might have been brought'—refers to those districts in which Congress has provided by its venue statutes that the action 'may be brought.' Applying this criterion, the defendants argue that the posture of the case under state law is irrelevant. They contend that Hoffman v. Blaski, supra, did not rule that the limitations of state law were relevant to determining where the action 'might have been brought' but ruled only that the requirement prohibited transfer where the proposed transferee forum lacked both venue of the action and power to command jurisdiction over the defendants when the suits were originally instituted. The defendants contend further that the decision below is contrary to the policy underlying Hoffman, since this decision effectively enables a plaintiff, simply by failing to proceed in other potential forums and qualify as a personal representative, to restrict and frustrate efforts to have the action transferred to a federal forum which would be far more convenient and appropriate. Finally, with regard to the conclusion that Rule 17(b) precludes transfer, the defendants argue that under § 1404(a) the effect of the Rule, like the existence of different state laws in the transferee forum, is not relevant to a determination of where, as indicated by federal venue laws, the action 'might have been brought.' The defendants conclude that the effect of transfer upon potential state-law defenses and upon the state law applied under Rule 17(b) should instead be considered and assessed with reference to the criterion that the transfer be 'in the interest of justice.' See infra, pp. 624—626, 640—643.

The plaintiff respond emphasizing that they are 'Pennsylvania fiduciaries representing the estates of Pennsylvania decedents.' They were not and are not qualified to bring these or related actions in Massachusetts and their lack of capacity would, under Massachusetts law, constitute 'an absolute defense.' The plaintiffs contend that Hoffman v. Blaski established that transfer must be denied unless, at the time the action was brought, the complaint had an independent right to institute that action in the transferee forum regardless of the fact that the defendant in seeking transfer might expressly or implicitly agree to venue and jurisdiction in the transferee forum and waive defenses that would have been available only under the law of the transferee State. In addition, the plaintiffs argue even if the limiting phrase 'where - it - might - have - been - brought' relates only to federal venue laws, Rule 17(b) expressly provides that the capacity of a fiduciary to sue in a United States district court shall be determined 'by the law of the state in which the district court is held.' The plaintiffs understand the language of the Rule to refer to the law of the State in which the transferee court is held rather than to the law of the State of the transferor court. They conclude that since they 'were not qualified to sue in Massachusetts (the State in which the transferee court would be held), they were not qualified to sue in the United States district court in Massachusetts and the District of Massachusetts was not a district in which these actions 'might have been brought."

A. In Hoffman v....

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