Sibbach v. Wilson & Co., Inc.
312 U.S. 1 (1941)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Sibbach v. Wilson & Co., Inc., 312 U.S. 1 (1941)

Sibbach v. Wilson & Co., Inc.

No. 28

Argued December 17, 1940

Decided January 13, 1941

312 U.S. 1

CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

1. Congress has power to regulate the practice and procedure of federal courts, and may exercise it by delegating to the Supreme or other federal courts authority to make rules not inconsistent with the statutes or Constitution of the United States. P. 312 U. S. 9.

2. The Act of June 19, 1934, empowering the Supreme Court to prescribe rules for the District Courts of the United States in civil actions, was restricted in its operation to matters of pleading, practice, and procedure. P. 312 U. S. 10.

3. Insofar as they are within the authority granted by Congress, the Rules of Civil Procedure prescribed by the Supreme Court under authority of the Act of June 19, 1934, repeal the Conformity Act. P. 312 U. S. 10.

4. Rule 35 of the Rules of Civil Procedure for the District Courts of the United States, which provides that, in a suit in which the physical or mental condition of a party is in controversy, the court may order the party to submit to a physical or mental examination by a physician, held within the authority granted by Congress in the Act of June 19, 1934, and consistent with the limitation of that Act that the rules prescribed shall not abridge, enlarge, or modify the "substantive rights" of any litigant. P. 312 U. S. 14.

5. Union Pacific Ry. Co. v. Botsford,141 U. S. 250, and Camden & Suburban Ry. v. Stetson,177 U. S. 172, explained. P. 312 U. S. 11.

6.Rules 35 and 37 of the Rules of Civil Procedure are rules of procedure, and their prescription did not exceed the authority granted by the Act of June 19, 1934, merely because they involve "important" or "substantial" rights. P. 312 U. S. 13.

Page 312 U. S. 2

7. That Congress reserved the power to examine, before they should become effective, rules proposed pursuant to the Act, and took no adverse action in respect of Rule 35, indicates that no transgression of legislative policy was found. P. 312 U. S. 15.

8. Refusal to obey an order under Rule 35 requiring a party to submit to a physical or mental examination is exempted by Rule 37(b)(2)(iv) from punishment as for a contempt. The remedies for such refusal are those enumerated in Rule 37(b)(2)(i), (ii), and (iii). P. 312 U. S. 16.

9. The action of the District Court in this case, punishing as for contempt a refusal to obey an order under Rule 35 requiring a plaintiff to submit to a physical examination, was such plain error as this Court may notice although not assigned or specified either in the Circuit Court of Appeals or here. P. 312 U. S. 16.

108 F.2d 415 reversed.

Certiorari, 309 U.S. 650, to review the affirmance of an order committing for contempt.

Page 312 U. S. 6

MR. JUSTICE ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case calls for decision as to the validity of Rules 35 and 37 of the Rules of Civil Procedure for District Courts of the United States. [Footnote 1]

In an action brought by the petitioner in the District Court for Northern Illinois to recover damages for bodily injuries inflicted in Indiana, respondent answered, denying the allegations of the complaint, and moved for an order requiring the petitioner to submit to a physical examination by one or more physicians appointed by the court to determine the nature and extent of her injuries. The court ordered that the petitioner submit to such an examination by a physician so appointed.

Compliance having been refused, the respondent obtained an order to show cause why the petitioner should

Page 312 U. S. 7

not be punished for contempt. In response, the petitioner challenged the authority of the court to order her to submit to the examination, asserting that the order was void. It appeared that the courts of Indiana, the state where the cause of action arose, hold such an order proper, [Footnote 2] whereas the courts of Illinois, the state in which the trial court sat, hold that such an order cannot be made. [Footnote 3] Neither state has any statute governing the matter.

The court adjudged the petitioner guilty of contempt, and directed that she be committed until she should obey the order for examination or otherwise should be legally discharged from custody. The petitioner appealed.

The Circuit Court of Appeals decided that Rule 35, which authorizes an order for a physical examination in such a case, is valid, and affirmed the judgment. [Footnote 4] The writ of certiorari was granted because of the importance of the question involved.

The Rules of Civil Procedure were promulgated under the authority of the Act of June 19, 1934, [Footnote 5] which is:

"Be it enacted . . . That the Supreme Court of the United States shall have the power to prescribe, by general rules, for the district courts of the United States and for the courts of the District of Columbia, the forms of process, writs, pleadings, and motions, and the practice and procedure in civil actions at law. Said rules shall neither abridge, enlarge, nor modify the substantive

Page 312 U. S. 8

rights of any litigant. They shall take effect six months after their promulgation, and thereafter all laws in conflict therewith shall be of no further force or effect."

"Sec. 2. The court may at any time unite the general rules prescribed by it for cases in equity with those in actions at law so as to secure one form of civil action and procedure for both: Provided, however, That, in such union of rules, the right of trial by jury as at common law and declared by the seventh amendment to the Constitution shall be preserved to the parties inviolate. Such united rules shall not take effect until they shall have been reported to Congress by the Attorney General at the beginning of a regular session thereof and until after the close of such session."

The text of the relevant portions of Rules 35 and 37 is:

"Rule 35. Physical And Mental Examination Of Persons."

"(a) Order for Examination. In an action in which the mental or physical condition of a party is in controversy, the court in which the action is pending may order him to submit to a physical or mental examination by a physician. The order may be made only on motion for good cause shown and upon notice to the party to be examined and to all other parties and shall specify the time, place, manner, conditions, and scope of the examination and the person or persons by whom it is to be made."

"Rule 37. Refusal To Make Discovery: Consequences."

"(a) Refusal to Answer. . . ."

"(b) Failure to Comply With Order."

"(1) Contempt. If a party or other witness refuses to be sworn or refuses to answer any question after being directed to do so by the court in the district in which the deposition is being taken, the refusal may be considered a contempt of that court. "

Page 312 U. S. 9

"(2) Other Consequences. If any party . . . refuses to obey . . . an order made under Rule 35 requiring him to submit to a physical or mental examination, the court may make such orders in regard to the refusal as are just, and, among others, the following:"

"(i) An order that . . . the physical or mental condition of the party . . . shall be taken to be established for the purposes of the action in accordance with the claim of the party obtaining the order;"

"(ii) An order . . . prohibiting [the disobedient party] . . . from introducing evidence of physical or mental condition;"

"(iii) An order striking out pleadings or parts thereof, or staying further proceedings until the order is obeyed, or dismissing the action or proceeding or any part thereof, or rendering a judgment by default against the disobedient party;"

"(iii) An order striking out pleadings or orders or in addition thereto, an order directing the arrest of any party or agent of a party for disobeying any of such orders except an order to submit to a physical or mental examination."

The contention of the petitioner, in final analysis, is that Rules 35 and 37 are not within the mandate of Congress to this court. This is the limit of permissible debate, since argument touching the broader questions of Congressional power and of the obligation of federal courts to apply the substantive law of a state is foreclosed.

Congress has undoubted power to regulate the practice and procedure of federal courts, [Footnote 6] and may exercise that power by delegating to this or other federal courts authority to make rules not inconsistent with the statutes

Page 312 U. S. 10

or Constitution of the United States; [Footnote 7] but it has never essayed to declare the substantive state law, or to abolish or nullify a right recognized by the substantive law of the state where the cause of action arose, save where a right or duty is imposed in a field committed to Congress by the Constitution. On the contrary, it has enacted that the state law shall be the rule of decision in the federal courts. [Footnote 8]

Hence, we conclude that the Act of June 19, 1934, was purposely restricted in its operation to matters of pleading and court practice and procedure. Its two provisos or caveats emphasize this restriction. The first is that the court shall not "abridge, enlarge, nor modify the substantive rights" in the guise of regulating procedure. The second is that, if the rules are to prescribe a single form of action for cases at law and suits in equity, the constitutional right to jury trial inherent in the former must be preserved. There are other limitations upon the authority to prescribe rules which might have been, but were not, mentioned in the Act -- for instance, the inability of a court, by rule, to extend or restrict the jurisdiction conferred by a statute. [Footnote 9]

Whatever may be said as to the effect of the Conformity Act [Footnote 10] while it remained in force, the rules, if they are within the authority granted by Congress, repeal that statute, and the District Court was not bound to follow the Illinois practice respecting an order for physical examination. On the other hand if the right to be exempt from such an order is one of substantive law, the Rules

Page 312 U. S. 11

of Decision Act [Footnote 11] required the District Court, though sitting in Illinois, to apply the law of Indiana, the state where the cause of action arose, and to order the examination. To avoid this dilemma, the petitioner admits, and, we think, correctly, that Rules 35 and 37 are rules of procedure. She insists, nevertheless, that, by the prohibition against abridging substantive rights, Congress has banned the rules here challenged. In order to reach this result, she translates "substantive" into "important" or "substantial" rights. And she urges that, if a rule affects such a right, albeit the rule is one of procedure merely, its prescription is not within the statutory grant of power embodied in the Act of June 19, 1934. She contends that our decisions and recognized principles require us so to hold.

The petitioner relies upon Union Pacific Ry. Co. v. Botsford,141 U. S. 250, and Camden & Suburban Ry. Co. v. Stetson,177 U. S. 172. But these cases in reality sustain the validity of the rules. In the Botsford case, an action to recover for a personal injury suffered in the territory of Utah [Footnote 12] was instituted in the United States Circuit Court for Indiana, which refused to order a physical examination. This court affirmed, on the ground that no authority for such an order was shown. There was no suggestion that the question was one of substantive law. The court first examines the practice at common law, and finds that it never recognized such an order. Then, acknowledging that a statute of the United States authorizing an order of the sort would be valid, the opinion finds there is none. Thus, the matter is treated as one of procedure, for Congress has not, if it could, declared by statute the substantive law of a state. After

Page 312 U. S. 12

stating that the decision law of Indiana on the subject appeared not to be settled, and that a cited statute of that State was not in point, the court added that the question was not one of the law of Indiana, but of the law of the United States, and that the federal statutes, by their provisions as to proof in actions at law, precluded the application of the Conformity Act. Again, therefore, the opinion recognized that the matter is one of procedure, for both the cited federal statutes, concerning the mode of proof in federal courts, and the Conformity Act, deal solely with procedure.

In fine, the decision was only that the making of such an order is regulable by statute, that the federal statutes forbade it, and hence the Conformity Act could not be thought to authorize the practice by reference to and incorporation of state law.

In the Stetson case, the action was brought in the District Court for New Jersey by a citizen of Pennsylvania who, while a citizen of New Jersey, had been injured in the latter state. A statute of New Jersey authorized the state courts to order a physical examination of a plaintiff in an action for damages pending therein. The District Court refused to order such an examination, on the ground that it lacked power so to do. After a verdict and judgment for plaintiff, the defendant appealed to the Circuit Court of Appeals, assigning the refusal as error. That court certified the question, 104 F. 1004, and this court answered that the District Court had power to order the examination.

The court stated that, in the Botsford case, there was no statute authorizing such an order, but said that here, there was a state statute which, by the Rules of Decision Act, was made a law of the United States, and must be given effect in a trial in a federal court. While it is true the court referred to the Rules of Decision Act, R.S. § 721, and not to the Conformity Act, R.S. § 914, the

Page 312 U. S. 13

entire discussion goes upon the assumption that the matter is procedural. In any event, the distinction between substantive and procedural law was immaterial, for the cause of action arose, and the trial was had, in New Jersey. [Footnote 13]

In the instant case, we have a rule which, if within the power delegated to this Court, has the force of a federal statute, and neither the Botsford nor the Stetson case is authority for ignoring it.

The remaining case on which petitioner leans is Stack v. New York, N.H. & H. R. Co., 177 Mass. 155, 58 N.E. 686, where the court agreed with the view expressed in the Botsford case that common law practice did not warrant the entry of such an order, and said it was for the legislature, rather than the courts, to alter the practice. But, if Rule 35 is within the authority granted, the federal legislature sanctioned it as controlling all district courts.

We are thrown back, then, to the arguments drawn from the language of the Act of June 19, 1934. Is the phrase "substantive rights" confined to rights conferred by law to be protected and enforced in accordance with the adjective law of judicial procedure? It certainly embraces such rights. One of them is the right not to be injured in one's person by another's negligence, to redress infraction of which the present action was brought. The petitioner says the phrase connotes more -- that, by its use, Congress intended that, in regulating procedure, this Court should not deal with important and substantial rights theretofore recognized. Recognized where, and by whom? The state courts are divided as to the power in the absence of statute to order a physical examination. [Footnote 14] In a number, such an order is authorized

Page 312 U. S. 14

by statute or rule. [Footnote 15] The rules in question accord with the procedure now in force in Canada and England. [Footnote 16]

The asserted right, moreover, is no more important than many others enjoyed by litigants in District Courts sitting in the several states, before the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure altered and abolished old rights or privileges and created new ones in connection with the conduct of litigation. The suggestion that the rule offends the important right to freedom from invasion of the person ignores the fact that, as we hold, no invasion of freedom from personal restraint attaches to refusal so to comply with its provisions. If we were to adopt the suggested criterion of the importance of the alleged right, we should invite endless litigation and confusion worse confounded. The test must be whether a rule really regulates procedure -- the judicial process for enforcing rights and duties recognized by substantive law, and for justly administering remedy and redress for disregard or infraction of them. That the rules in question are such is admitted.

Finally, it is urged that Rules 35 and 37 work a major change of policy, and that this was not intended by Congress. Apart from the fact, already stated, that the policy of the states in this respect has not been uniform, it is to be noted that the authorization of a comprehensive system of court rules was a departure in policy, and that the new policy envisaged in the enabling act of 1934 was that the whole field of court procedure be regulated in the interest of speedy, fair, and exact determination of the truth. The challenged rules comport with this policy. Moreover, in accordance with the Act, the rules were submitted

Page 312 U. S. 15

to the Congress so that that body might examine them and veto their going into effect if contrary to the policy of the legislature.

The value of the reservation of the power to examine proposed rules, laws, and regulations before they become effective is well understood by Congress. It is frequently, as here, employed to make sure that the action under the delegation squares with the Congressional purpose. [Footnote 17] Evidently the Congress felt the rule was within the ambit of the statute, as no effort was made to eliminate it from the proposed body of rules, although this specific rule was attacked and defended before the committees of the two Houses. [Footnote 18] The Preliminary Draft of the rules called attention to the contrary practice indicated by the Botsford case, as did the Report of the Advisory Committee and the Notes prepared by the Committee

Page 312 U. S. 16

to accompany the final version of the rules. [Footnote 19] That no adverse action was taken by Congress indicates at least that no transgression of legislative policy was found. We conclude that the rules under attack are within the authority granted.

The District Court treated the refusal to comply with its order as a contempt, and committed the petitioner therefor. Neither in the Circuit Court of Appeals nor here was this action assigned as error. We think, however, that, in the light of the provisions of Rule 37, it was plain error of such a fundamental nature that we should notice it. [Footnote 20] Section (b)(2)(iv) of Rule 37 exempts from punishment as for contempt the refusal to obey an order that a party submit to a physical or mental examination. The District Court was in error in going counter to this express exemption. The remedies available under the rule in such a case are those enumerated in Section (b)(2)(i)(ii) and (iii). For this error, we reverse the judgment and remand the cause to the District Court for further proceedings in conformity to this opinion.

Reversed.

[Footnote 1]

28 U.S.C. following § 723c.

[Footnote 2]

South Bend v. Turner, 156 Ind. 418, 60 N.E. 271; Aspy v. Botkins, 160 Ind. 170, 66 N.E. 462; Lake Eris & W. R. Co. v. Griswold, 72 Ind.App. 265, 125 N.E. 783; Valparaiso v. Kinney, 75 Ind.App. 660, 131 N.E. 237.

[Footnote 3]

Chicago v. McNally, 227 Ill. 14, 81 N.E. 23; Mattice v. Klawans, 312 Ill. 299, 143 N.E. 866; People v. Scott, 326 Ill. 327, 157 N.E. 247.

[Footnote 4]

108 F.2d 415.

[Footnote 5]

C. 651, 48 Stat. 1064, 28 U.S.C. §§ 723b, 723c.

[Footnote 6]

Wayman v. Southard, 10 Wheat. 1, 23 U. S. 21; Bank of United States v. Halstead, 10 Wheat. 51, 23 U. S. 53; Beers v. Haughton, 9 Pet. 329, 34 U. S. 359-361.

[Footnote 7]

Wayman v. Southard, supra,23 U. S. 42; Bank of the United States v. Halstead, supra,23 U. S. 61; Beers v. Haughton, supra,34 U. S. 359.

[Footnote 8]

R.S. 721, 28 U.S.C. § 725.

[Footnote 9]

Hudson v. Parker,156 U. S. 277, 156 U. S. 284; Venner v. Great Northern Ry. Co.,209 U. S. 24, 209 U. S. 35; Davidson Bros. Marble Co. v. Gibson,213 U. S. 10, 213 U. S. 18; Meek v. Centre County Banking Co.,268 U. S. 426, 268 U. S. 434.

[Footnote 10]

R.S. 914, 28 U.S.C. § 724.

[Footnote 11]

Supra,note 8

[Footnote 12]

The opinion does not so state, but the record filed in this court so shows.

[Footnote 13]

As above pointed out, if the matter is one of substantive law, R.S. § 721 requires the application of the law of Indiana, which authorizes an order for examination.

[Footnote 14]

See Wigmore on Evidence, 3d Ed., § 2220, note 13.

[Footnote 15]

See Notes to the Rules of Civil Procedure, printed by the Advisory Committee March, 1938, p. 32.

[Footnote 16]

Wigmore on Evidence, 3d Ed., § 2220, note 13; 31 & 32 Vict. c. 119, § 26.

[Footnote 17]

An analogy is found in the organic acts applicable to some of the territories, before their admission to statehood, which provided that laws passed by the territorial legislature should be valid unless Congress disapproved. § 5 of the Ordinance of 1787; See Pease v. Peck, 18 How. 595. Territory of Florida, § 5 of the act of March 30, 1822 (3 Stat. 655); Territory of Louisiana, § 4 of the act of March 26, 1804 (2 Stat. 284), and § 3 of the act of March 3, 1805 (2 Stat. 331); Territory of Minnesota, § 6 of the Act of March 3, 1849 (9 Stat. 405); Territory of New Mexico, § 7 of the act of September 9, 1850 (9 Stat. 449); Territory of Oregon, § 6 of the act of August 14, 1848 (9 Stat. 325, 326); Territory of Utah, § 6 of the act of September 9, 1850 (9 Stat. 455); Territory of Washington, § 6 of the act of March 2, 1853 (10 Stat. 175); Territory of Wisconsin, § 6 of the act of April 20, 1836 (5 Stat. 12, 13). Similar provisions are now applicable to Alaska, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and the Philippines. 48 U.S.C. §§ 90, 826, 1405o, 1054.

Cf. the provisions for lying over before Congress in § 407 of the act of March 3, 1933, 47 Stat. 1519, and § 5 of the Reorganization Act of 1939, 53 Stat. 562.

[Footnote 18]

Hearings before the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, 75th Cong., 3rd Sess., pp. 117, 141; Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. Senate, 75th Cong., 3rd Sess., pp. 36, 37, 39, 51.

[Footnote 19]

Preliminary Draft (May, 1936) of Rules of Civil Procedure for the District Courts of the United States and the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, Advisory Committee on Rules for Civil Procedure, p. 71; Notes to the Rules of Civil Procedure for the District Courts of the United States (March, 1938), p. 32.

[Footnote 20]

Supreme Court Rule 27, par. 6; Mabler v. Eby,264 U. S. 32, 264 U. S. 45; Kessler v. Strecker,307 U. S. 22, 307 U. S. 34.

MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER (dissenting).

Union Pacific Railway Co. v. Botsford,141 U. S. 250, denied the power of the federal courts in a civil action to compel a plaintiff suing for injury to the person to submit to a physical examination. Nine years later, in Camden & Suburban Ry. Co. v. Stetson,177 U. S. 172,

Page 312 U. S. 17

the Botsford decision was treated as settled doctrine. The present issue is whether the authority which Congress gave to this Court to formulate rules of civil procedure for the district courts allows displacement of the law of the Botsford case. Stated more particularly, is Rule 35, authorizing such physical examination, valid under the Rules Enabling Act of June 19, 1934, 48 Stat. 1064, 28 U.S.C. §§ 723b, 723c. It is urged that, since this Rule pertains to procedure, it is valid because outside the limitations of that Act, whereby "said rules shall neither abridge, enlarge, nor modify the substantive rights of any litigant."

Speaking with diffidence in support of a view which has not commended itself to the Court, it does not seem to me that the answer to our question is to be found by an analytic determination whether the power of examination here claimed is a matter of procedure or a matter of substance, even assuming that the two are mutually exclusive categories with easily ascertainable contents. The problem seems to me to be controlled by the policy underlying the Botsford decision. Its doctrine was not a survival of an outworn technicality. It rested on considerations akin to what is familiarly known in the English law as the liberties of the subject. To be sure, the immunity that was recognized in the Botsford case has no constitutional sanction. It is amenable to statutory change. But the "inviolability of a person" was deemed to have such historic roots in Anglo-American law that it was not to be curtailed "unless by clear and unquestionable authority of law." In this connection, it is significant that a judge as responsive to procedural needs as was Mr. Justice Holmes should, on behalf of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, have supported the Botsford doctrine on the ground that "the common law was very slow to sanction any violation

Page 312 U. S. 18

of or interference with the person of a free citizen."

Stack v. New York, N.H. & H. R. Co., 177 Mass. 155, 157, 58 N.E. 686.

So far as national law is concerned, a drastic change in public policy in a matter deeply touching the sensibilities of people or even their prejudices as to privacy, ought not to be inferred from a general authorization to formulate rules for the more uniform and effective dispatch of business on the civil side of the federal courts. I deem a requirement as to the invasion of the person to stand on a very different footing from questions pertaining to the discovery of documents, pretrial procedure, and other devices for the expeditious, economic, and fair conduct of litigation. That disobedience of an order under Rule 35 cannot be visited with punishment as for contempt does not mitigate its intrusion into an historic immunity of the privacy of the person. Of course, the Rule is compulsive in that the doors of the federal courts, otherwise open, may be shut to litigants who do not submit to such a physical examination.

In this view, little significance attaches to the fact that the Rules, in accordance with the statute, remained on the table of two Houses of Congress without evoking any objection to Rule 35, and thereby automatically came into force. Plainly, the Rules are not acts of Congress, and cannot be treated as such. Having due regard to the mechanics of legislation and the practical conditions surrounding the business of Congress when the Rules were submitted, to draw any inference of tacit approval from nonaction by Congress is to appeal to unreality. And so I conclude that to make the drastic change that Rule 35 sought to introduce would require explicit legislation.

Ordinarily, disagreement with the majority on so-called procedural matters is best held in silence. Even in the present situation, I should be loath to register dissent did

Page 312 U. S. 19

the issue pertain merely to diversity litigation. But Rule 35 applies to all civil litigation in the federal courts, and thus concerns the enforcement of federal rights, and not merely of state law in the federal courts.

MR. JUSTICE BLACK, MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, and MR. JUSTICE MURPHY agree with these views.

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