Hanna v. Plumer,
380 U.S. 460 (1965)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Hanna v. Plumer, 380 U.S. 460 (1965)

Hanna v. Plumer

No. 171

Argued January 21, 1965

Decided April 26, 1965

380 U.S. 460


In a civil action in a federal court where jurisdiction is based upon diversity of citizenship, service of process shall be made in the manner set forth in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(d)(1), rather than in the manner prescribed by state law.

(a) Rule 4(d)(1) is authorized by the Rules Enabling Act. Pp. 380 U. S. 464-465.

(b) Even if there were no Federal Rule of Civil Procedure making it clear that in-hand service is not required in diversity actions, it is doubtful that Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U. S. 64, and the line of cases following it would have obligated the District Court to follow the Massachusetts in-hand service procedure. The "outcome determination" test of Guaranty Trust Co. v. York, 326 U. S. 99, was never intended to be a talisman, but must be read in light of the policies underlying the Erie rule -- discouragement of forum shopping and avoidance of inequitable administration of the laws. Pp. 380 U. S. 466-469.

(c) In any event, the rule of Erie and its progeny does not constitute the appropriate test of the validity, and therefore the applicability, of a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure. Pp. 380 U. S. 469-474.

(d) Rule 4(d)(1) does not exceed the constitutional bounds to which the Erie opinion alluded. The constitutional provision for a federal court system carries with it congressional power to make rules governing the practice and pleading in federal courts. Pp. 380 U. S. 471-472.

331 F.2d 157 reversed.

Page 380 U. S. 461

Primary Holding

A court determining whether a law is substantive or procedural under the Erie doctrine should evaluate whether it affects primary decisions regarding human conduct. In cases when it is rationally possible to classify a law as either substantive or procedural, the federal courts have the authority to control their own practice and pleading procedures.


After a car accident in South Carolina, Hanna brought a claim against Plumer, the executor of the estate of the driver who hit him. Since Hanna was a resident of Ohio, and Plumer was a resident of Massachusetts, the case was heard by a federal court in Massachusetts sitting in diversity jurisdiction. Plumer was served by leaving copies of the summons with his wife, in accordance with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. However, Plumer successfully sought summary judgment at trial because Massachusetts law requires service to be delivered by hand to the defendant personally.

The parties argued on appeal over how the Erie doctrine applied to this case. Plumer asserted that it would find a question to be substantive rather than procedural under the outcome-determinative test when applying federal law would alter the outcome of the case. He pointed out that applying federal law would change the outcome of the case, which otherwise would be dismissed, so the state procedural requirements and the grant of summary judgment should be upheld.



  • Earl Warren (Author)
  • William Orville Douglas
  • Tom C. Clark
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Potter Stewart
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Arthur Joseph Goldberg

To raise the Erie doctrine, the effect of a procedural rule on the outcome of a case must abridge, enlarge, or modify the substantive law, according to the Enabling Act for the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. There is no change to a substantive right here because the plaintiff simply can refile the case or serve the defendant personally. This issue thus relates only to procedural requirements, so applying the outcome-determinative test is not appropriate.


  • John Marshall Harlan II (Author)

While the outcome-determinative test was appropriately repudiated, the majority extended the boundaries of the procedural classification too broadly. A better way to distinguish between substantive and procedure is whether the choice between federal or state rules would substantially affect primary decisions regarding human conduct that are left to the states under the constitutional system.


  • Hugo Lafayette Black (Author)

Case Commentary

Rather than applying the prior outcome-determinative test in an Erie situation, the court found that federal rules that are directly on point are controlling for any actions brought in a federal court.

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