Tafflin v. Levitt,
493 U.S. 455 (1990)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Tafflin v. Levitt, 493 U.S. 455 (1990)

Tafflin v. Levitt

No. 88-1650

Argued Nov. 27, 1989

Decided Jan. 22, 1990

493 U.S. 455


Petitioners, nonresidents of Maryland who,are holders of unpaid certificates of deposit issued by a failed Maryland savings and loan association, filed a civil action in the Federal District Court against respondents, former association officers and directors and others, alleging claims under inter alia, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), 18 U.S.C. §§ 1961-1968. The court dismissed the action, concluding, among other things, that federal abstention was appropriate as to the civil RICO claims, which had been raised in pending litigation in state court, since state courts have concurrent jurisdiction over such claims. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: State courts have concurrent jurisdiction over civil RICO claims. The presumption in favor of such jurisdiction

Page 493 U. S. 456

has not been rebutted by any of the factors identified in Gulf Offshore Co. v. Mobil Oil Corp., 453 U. S. 473, 453 U. S. 478. Pp. 493 U. S. 458-467.

(a) As petitioners concede, there is nothing in RICO's explicit language to suggest that Congress has, by affirmative enactment, divested state courts of civil RICO jurisdiction. To the contrary, § 1964(c)'s grant of federal jurisdiction over civil RICO claims is plainly permissive, and thus does not operate to oust state courts from concurrent jurisdiction. P. 493 U. S. 460-461.

(b) RICO's legislative history reveals no evidence that Congress even considered the question of concurrent jurisdiction, much less any suggestion that Congress affirmatively intended to confer exclusive jurisdiction over civil RICO claims on the federal courts. Petitioners' argument that, because Congress modeled § 1964(c) after § 4 of the Clayton Act -- which confers exclusive jurisdiction on the federal courts -- it intended, by implication, to grant exclusive federal jurisdiction over § 1964(c) claims is rejected. Sedima, S.P.R.L. v. Imrex Co., 473 U. S. 479, and Agency Holding Corp. v. Malley-Duff & Assocs., 483 U. S. 143, are distinguished, since those cases looked to the Clayton Act in interpreting RICO without the benefit of a background juridical presumption of the type presented here. Pp. 493 U. S. 461-462.

(c) No "clear incompatibility" exists between state court jurisdiction and federal interests. The interest in uniform interpretation of federal criminal laws, see 18 U.S.C. § 3231, is not inconsistent with such jurisdiction merely because state courts would be required to construe the federal crimes that constitute RICO predicate acts. Section 1964(c) claims are not "offenses against the laws of the United States," § 3231, and do not result in the imposition of criminal sanctions. There is also no significant danger of inconsistent application of federal criminal law, since federal courts would not be bound by state court interpretations of predicate acts, since state courts would be guided by federal court interpretations of federal criminal law, and since any state court judgments misinterpreting federal criminal law would be subject to direct review by this Court. Moreover, state courts have the ability to handle the complexities of civil RICO actions. Many cases involve asserted violations of state law, over which state courts presumably have greater expertise, and it would seem anomalous to rule that they are incompetent to adjudicate civil RICO claims when such claims are subject to adjudication by arbitration, see Shearson/American Express Inc. v. McMahon, 482 U. S. 220, 482 U. S. 239. Further, although the fact that RICO's procedural mechanisms are applicable only in federal court may tend to suggest that Congress intended exclusive federal jurisdiction, it does not by itself suffice to create a "clear incompatibility" with federal interests. And, to the extent that Congress intended RICO to serve broad remedial purposes, concurrent jurisdiction will advance, rather than jeopardize, federal policies underlying the statute. Pp. 493 U. S. 464-467.

865 F.2d 595 (CA 4 1989), affirmed.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. WHITE, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 493 U. S. 467. SCALIA, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which KENNEDY, J., joined, post, 493 U. S. 469.

Primary Holding

State courts can have concurrent jurisdiction over federal claims except when the interests of the state and federal governments cannot be reconciled or when the statute giving rise to the claim or its legislative history suggest otherwise.


In a federal court, the holders of unpaid certificates of deposit sued the officers and directors of a state-chartered savings and loans that had failed. They based their claims on the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which already had been raised in state court. The officers pointed out this situation to the lower court and argued that it should not hear the RICO claims because the state court already had jurisdiction over them. Citing the principle of concurrent jurisdiction, the lower court abstained from hearing the case.



  • Sandra Day O'Connor (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • John Paul Stevens
  • Antonin Scalia
  • Anthony M. Kennedy

The Supremacy Clause contains the only limitations on the concurrent jurisdiction that state courts have over all claims. Interests such as the uniform interpretation of the laws, the expertise of federal judges, and the greater availability of federal courts to hear federal claims are the key factors in determining whether the state and federal courts are compatible, as established by Gulf Offshore v. Mobil Oil Corp. (1981). Concurrent jurisdiction is proper here because the state court is not infringing on federal interests by hearing the RICO claims.


  • Antonin Scalia (Author)
  • Anthony M. Kennedy

Even if the legislative history suggests that concurrent jurisdiction is proper, this alone should not prevent the state courts from exercising it. There must be a clear implication in the text of the statute itself to provide the affirmative act that triggers the Supremacy Clause. Even if the state and federal governments have some incompatible interests, moreover, concurrent jurisdiction still may be permissible.


  • Byron Raymond White (Author)

Case Commentary

Since federal courts can hear a claim only when they are granted the right to hear it, state courts have de facto exclusive jurisdiction over some matters. Although it is easy to resolve these disputes when a federal law clearly assigns jurisdiction to state courts. it can be challenging to determine whether it is implied.

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