Henderson v. United States

RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Seminole Tribe

DOCKET NO.: 95-232
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 517 US 654 (1996)
ARGUED: Mar 19, 1996
DECIDED: May 20, 1996

Malcolm L. Stewart - Argued the cause for the respondent
Richard A. Sheehy - Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Lloyd Henderson, a merchant mariner, was injured while working aboard a United States vessel. After exhausting administrative remedies, Henderson filed a seaman's personal injury action against the United States under the Suits in Admiralty Act. Henderson's complaint was filed close to, but within, the two-year limit set on complaints by the Act. Henderson then followed the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure on the service of the summons and complaint, or service of process, to the proper authorities. The United States argued that Henderson failed to serve the complaint "forthwith," or without delay. This deprived the court of jurisdiction because "forthwith" service is a prerequisite for the government's waiver of sovereign immunity under the Act. The government's argument prevailed and the federal District Court dismissed Henderson's suit. Henderson lost on appeal. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.


Is service of process under the Suits of Admiralty Act a matter of procedure governed by the uniform Federal Rules of Civil Procedure?

Media for Henderson v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 19, 1996 in Henderson v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in Number 95-232, Henderson v. United States.

Mr. Sheehy, you may proceed.

Richard A. Sheehy:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, good morning, members of the Court:

The Court has granted review in this case on two issues.

First, does the 120-day service requirement of Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure supersede the forthwith service requirement of the Suits in Admiralty Act?

Number 2, if not, does the district court have authority to extend the time for service provided under the Suits in Admiralty Act under appropriate circumstances?

Petitioner Henderson submits to the Court that the answers to both questions are in the affirmative, and would request this Court to reverse the judgments of the lower courts and remand this case for trial on the merits.

First, the 120-day requirement in Rule 4 supersedes the forthwith service requirement of the Suits in Admiralty Act.

There are three basic reasons for this conclusion.

Number 1, the forthwith service requirement is procedural, so it was invalidated by the Rules Enabling Act when Rule 4 was amended in 1966 and 1982.

Second, a holding that the forthwith requirement prevails would violate and frustrate congressional intent and the policies underlying the act and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Finally, even if the forthwith service requirement is not procedural, the 1982 amendments to the Federal rules were done by direct legislative action, so they would invalidate the forthwith requirement.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, the Rule 4(j) as I read it, Mr. Sheehy, simply says that if a complaint is not... if service is not made on a defendant within 120 days it shall be dismissed.

It doesn't say you invariably have 120 days in which to serve a complaint.

Richard A. Sheehy:

Mr. Chief Justice, I think that the legislative history and the comments made by the advisory committee, et al. indicate that the 120 rules, there is no exception to it, and that in fact the parties have 120 days to serve--

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, and to what extent are we... do we defer to legislative history in this area?

Richard A. Sheehy:

--Your Honor, because in 1982 this particular rule was reviewed to great extent by Congress, as the Court is aware, the submission by the Court was not adopted in total by the Congress, and there was a review by the Congress and this very issue was discussed, namely, under what provisions would the 120 days be put into the rule.

William H. Rehnquist:

It was discussed by whom?

Richard A. Sheehy:

There is a... Professor Siegel in his analysis of the rules, the advisory committee, and the judicial conference.

The original submission by this Court to Congress for the 120-day rule, the 120 days was there.

There was a suggestion by this Court about service by mail, which eventually was changed, and there was also no submission by this Court of a good cause extension.

What happened is, Congress, upon suggestions by lawyers, particularly in California, concerned about the certified mail provision and also about the fact that there was an absolute 120-day shall-be-dismissed provision, and the... there were suggestions made that were discussed by Professor Siegel--

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, how does that bear on how we read a written rule?

Richard A. Sheehy:

--Well, my point exactly is that the rule itself says, and I think the Government has conceded in its brief on page 20 that there's a clear implication that a party has 120 days to serve under Rule 4, that there are no exceptions for it, it's not a guideline, it's not a suggestion, but a party has 120 days, and I think--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, but there certainly is room for another statute, which we have here in the Suits in Admiralty Act, to have a different requirement, and you can read both statutes and give effect to both, that for a suit in admiralty it has to be served forthwith, and if it's not a suit under that act, then you might have a longer time.

I mean, that is the argument the Government makes, and it certainly is one that is plausible, isn't it?

Richard A. Sheehy:

--With all respect, Your Honor, I disagree.

Let us assume for a moment, just to make it a little bit clearer, that instead of forthwith, the act would have said 50 days, or a particular number, so it becomes clear.

So in effect, we have one statute that says the Government can be sued in 50 days in admiralty, the Government in all cases can be sued in 120 days.

In effect--