Murphy Brothers, Inc. v. Michetti Pipe Stringing, Inc.
Annotate this Case
526 U.S. 344 (1999)
OCTOBER TERM, 1998
MURPHY BROTHERS, INC. v. MICHETTI PIPE STRINGING, INC.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT
No. 97-1909. Argued March 1, 1999-Decided April 5, 1999
On January 26, 1996, respondent Michetti Pipe Stringing, Inc. (Michetti), filed a complaint in Alabama state court seeking damages for an alleged breach of contract and fraud by petitioner Murphy Bros., Inc. (Murphy). Michetti did not serve Murphy then, but three days later it faxed a "courtesy copy" of the file-stamped complaint to a Murphy vice president. Michetti officially served Murphy under local law by certified mail on February 12, 1996. On March 13, 1996 (30 days after service but 44 days after receiving the faxed copy of the complaint), Murphy removed the case under 28 U. S. C. § 1441 to the Federal District Court. Michetti moved to remand the case to the state court on the ground that Murphy filed the removal notice 14 days too late under § 1446(b), which specifies, in relevant part, that the notice "shall be filed within thirty days after the receipt by the defendant, through service or otherwise, of a copy of the [complaint]." (Emphasis added.) Because the notice had not been filed within 30 days of the date on which Murphy's vice president received the facsimile transmission, Michetti asserted, the removal was untimely. The District Court denied the remand motion on the ground that the 30-day removal period did not commence until Murphy was officially served with a summons. On interlocutory appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed and remanded, instructing the District Court to remand the action to state court. Emphasizing the statutory words "receipt ... or otherwise," the Eleventh Circuit held that the defendant's receipt of a faxed copy of the filed initial pleading sufficed to commence the 30-day removal period.
Held: A named defendant's time to remove is triggered by simultaneous service of the summons and complaint, or receipt of the complaint, "through service or otherwise," after and apart from service of the summons, but not by mere receipt of the complaint unattended by any formal service. Pp. 350-356.
(a) Service of process, under longstanding tradition in our system of justice, is fundamental to any procedural imposition on a named defendant. In the absence of such service (or waiver of service by the defendant), a court ordinarily may not exercise power over a party the
complaint names as defendant. See Omni Capital Int'l, Ltd. v. Rudolf Wolff & Co., 484 U. S. 97, 104. Accordingly, one becomes a party officially, and is required to take action in that capacity, only upon service of a summons or other authority-asserting measure stating the time within which the party served must appear and defend. See Fed. Rules Civ. Proc. 4(a) and 12(a)(1)(A). Unless a named defendant agrees to waive service, the summons continues to function as the sine qua non directing an individual or entity to participate in a civil action or forgo procedural or substantive rights. Pp. 350-351.
(b) In enacting § 1446(b), Congress did not endeavor to break away from the traditional understanding. Prior to 1948, a defendant could remove a case any time before the expiration of the time to respond to the complaint under state law. Because that time limit varied from State to State, however, the removal period correspondingly varied. To reduce the disparity, Congress in 1948 enacted the original version of § 1446(b), which required that the removal petition in a civil action be filed within 20 days after commencement of the action or service of process, whichever was later. However, as first framed, § 1446(b) did not give adequate time or operate uniformly in States such as New York, where service of the summons commenced the action and could precede the filing of the complaint, so that the removal period could have expired before the defendant obtained access to the complaint. To ensure such access before commencement of the removal period, Congress in 1949 enacted the current version of § 1446(b). Nothing in the 1949 amendment's legislative history so much as hints that Congress, in making changes to accommodate atypical state commencement and complaint filing procedures, intended to dispense with the historic function of service of process as the official trigger for responsive action by a named defendant. pp. 351-353.
(c) Relying on the "plain meaning" of § 1446(b) that the panel perceived, the Eleventh Circuit was of the view that "[receipt] through service or otherwise" opens a universe of means besides service for putting the defendant in possession of the complaint. However, the Eleventh Circuit did not delineate the dimensions of that universe. Nor can one tenably maintain that the words "or otherwise" provide a clue. Cf., e. g., Potter v. McCauley, 186 F. Supp. 146, 149. The interpretation of § 1446(b) adopted here adheres to tradition, makes sense of the phrase "or otherwise," and assures defendants adequate time to decide whether to remove an action to federal court. The various state provisions for service of the summons and the filing or service of the complaint fit into one or another of four main categories. See ibid. In each of those categories, the defendant's removal period will be no less than 30 days