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

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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


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

Primary Holding

Contempt citations are not proper when a party disregards an order under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to submit to a physical examination, even though a federal court has the right to order it.


After an accident in Indiana, Sibbach brought a personal injury claim against Wilson in a federal court in Illinois. After denying the allegations in the complaint, Wilson sought to compel Sibbach to undergo a physical examination, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 35, which would determine the nature and extent of her harm. The district court granted this order, but Sibbach argued that it was invalid and refused to comply. Indiana courts would have allowed this order, while Illinois courts would not have allowed it. Sibbach was found in contempt for refusing to comply with the order. The lower court ordered her to be committed until she complied with the order for a physical examination.



  • Owen Josephus Roberts (Author)
  • Charles Evans Hughes
  • James Clark McReynolds
  • Harlan Fiske Stone
  • Stanley Forman Reed

Congress can set rules that govern the practices and procedures of federal courts, often by delegating authority to them to make these rules. But the authority of Congress does not extend to creating substantive state law. The issue here is whether Rules 35 and 37 in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure fall within the mandate of Congress to the federal courts. This should be determined according to whether the rules regulate procedure, which can be defined as the judicial process for enforcing rights and duties that are created by a substantive law. These rules are procedural. Refusing to comply with Rule 35 does not result in any invasion of the individual right to be free from invasion of the person or personal restraint, as the plaintiff argues.

The plaintiff did not challenge the treatment of her refusal to comply with the order under Rule 35 as an act of contempt, but Rule 37 creates an exception to punishment for contempt in a situation when a party refuses to obey an order to submit to a physical or mental examination. This means that the plaintiff should not have been held in contempt.


  • Felix Frankfurter (Author)
  • Hugo Lafayette Black
  • William Orville Douglas
  • Frank Murphy

Even though contempt sanctions cannot be imposed for a violation of Rule 35, it still is an impermissible intrusion into the historically protected privacy of individuals.

Case Commentary

Rule 35 is applicable only in certain narrow circumstances, generally when a party's mental or physical condition is directly at issue in the action. Its use must be supported by good cause, and it cannot be applied to a non-party. This case shows the most common context in which it appears, although it also may be relevant when a defendant makes an affirmative defense based on a physical or mental deficiency.

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