DOUGLAS V. NEW YORK, N.H. & H. R. CO., 279 U. S. 377 (1929)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Douglas v. New York, N.H. & H. R. Co., 279 U.S. 377 (1929)

Douglas v. New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad Company

No. 312

Argued January 16, 1929

Reargued April 15, 16, 1929

Decided May 13, 1929

279 U.S. 377




1. In determining whether the privileges and immunities clause of the Constitution, or an Act of Congress, is contravened by a state statute, the purport established for the state statute by the highest court of the state is accepted here. P. 279 U. S. 385.

2. Where a state law is susceptible of two constructions, one of which might put it in conflict with the Federal Constitution, it is to be presumed that the other construction, rendering it valid, would be adopted by the state courts. P. 279 U. S. 386.

3. In § 1780 of the New York Code of Civil Procedure, under which, as locally construed, actions by nonresidents against foreign corporations doing business in the state are subject to dismissal at the discretion of the court, the term "nonresident" should be interpreted as embracing citizens of the state who do not actually live in the state at the time of bringing such actions. P. 279 U. S. 386.

4. A state law under which citizens of the state who actually reside there have the right to maintain actions in the state courts against foreign corporations doing business there on causes of action arising from foreign torts, but under which such actions, when brought by nonresidents, whether citizens of that state or of other states, are subject to dismissal at the discretion of the court, makes a distinction based on rational considerations, and does not violate the privileges and immunities clause, Art. IV, § 2, of the Constitution. P. 279 U. S. 387.

5. The Federal Employers' Liability Act does not purport to require state courts to entertain actions under it as against an otherwise valid excuse under the state law. P. 279 U. S. 387.

248 N.Y. 580 affirmed.

Certiorari, 278 U.S. 590, to review a judgment of the Supreme Court of New York, entered on a rescript from the Court of Appeals affirming the dismissal of an action

Page 279 U. S. 378

brought under the Federal Employers' Liability Act. See also 223 App.Div. (N.Y.) 782. The Attorney General of New York was given leave to file a brief and take part in the reargument because of the importance of the case.

Page 279 U. S. 385

MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a suit under the Employers' Liability Act for personal injuries. The injuries were inflicted in Connecticut, the plaintiff, the petitioner, is a citizen and resident of Connecticut, and the defendant, the respondent, is a Connecticut corporation, although doing business in New York, where the suit was brought. Upon motion, the trial court dismissed the action, assuming that the statutes of the state gave it a discretion in the matter, and its action was affirmed by the Appellate Division, 223 App.Div. 782, and by the Court of Appeals, 248 N.Y. 580. Thus, it is established that the statute purports to give to the Court the power that it exercised. But the plaintiff says that the Act as construed is void under Article IV, § 2, of the Constitution of the United States: "The Citizens of each state shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several states." A subordinate argument is added that the jurisdiction is imposed by the Employers' Liability Act when, as here, the Court has authority to entertain the suit. C., Title 45, § 56; Acts of April 22, 1908, c. 149, § 6, 35 Stat. 66, April 5, 1910, c. 143, § 1, 36 Stat. 291. That section gives concurrent jurisdiction to the Courts of the United States and the states and forbids removal if the suit is brought in a state court.

Page 279 U. S. 386

The language of the New York statute, Laws of 1913, c. 60, amending § 1780 or the Code of Civil Procedure is:

"An action against a foreign corporation may be maintained by another foreign corporation, or by a nonresident, in one of the following cases only; . . . 4. Where a foreign corporation is doing business within this state."

Laws of 1920, c. 916, § 47. The argument for the petitioner is that, construed as it is, it makes a discrimination between citizens of New York and citizens of other states because it authorizes the court, in its discretion, to dismiss an action by a citizen of another state, but not an action brought by a citizen of New York, which last it cannot do. Gregonis v. Philadelphia & Reading Coal & Iron Co., 235 N.Y. 152. It is said that a citizen of New York is a resident of New York wherever he may be living in fact, and thus that all citizens of New York can bring these actions, whereas citizens of other states cannot unless they are actually living in the state. But, however often the word resident may have been used as equivalent to citizen, and for whatever purposes residence may have been assumed to follow citizenship, there is nothing to prohibit the legislature from using "resident" in the strict primary sense of one actually living in the place for the time, irrespective even of domicile. If that word in this statute must be so construed in order to uphold the act or even to avoid serious doubts of its constitutionality, we presume that the courts of New York would construe it in that way, as indeed the supreme court has done already in so many words. Adams v. Penn Bank of Pittsburgh, 35 Hun (N.Y.) 393; Duquesne Club v. Penn Bank of Pittsburgh, 35 Hun (N.Y.) 390; Robinson v. Oceanic Steam Navigation Co., 112 N.Y. 315, 324; Klotz v. Angle, 220 N.Y. 347. See Canadian Northern Ry. Co. v. Eggen, 252 U. S. 553, 252 U. S. 562-563. The same meaning seems to be assumed in Gregonis

Page 279 U. S. 387

v. Philadelphia & Reading Coal & Iron Co., 235 N.Y. 152. We cannot presume, against this evidence and in order to overthrow a statute, that the courts of New York would adopt a different rule from that which is well settled here. Panama R. Co. v. Johnson, 264 U. S. 375, 264 U. S. 390.

Construed as it has been and we believe will be construed, the statute applies to citizens of New York as well as to others, and puts them on the same footing. There is no discrimination between citizens as such, and none between nonresidents with regard to these foreign causes of action. A distinction of privileges according to residence may be based upon rational considerations, and has been upheld by this Court, emphasizing the difference between citizenship and residence, in La Tourette v. McMaster, 248 U. S. 465. Followed in Maxwell v. Bugbee, 250 U. S. 525, 250 U. S. 539. It is true that, in Blake v. McClung, 172 U. S. 239, 172 U. S. 247, "residents" was taken to mean citizens in a Tennessee statute of a wholly different scope, but, whatever else may be said of the argument in that opinion (compare p. 172 U. S. 262, ibid.), it cannot prevail over the later decision in La Tourette v. McMaster and the plain intimations of the New York cases to which we have referred. There are manifest reasons for preferring residents in access to often overcrowded courts both in convenience and in the fact that, broadly speaking, it is they who pay for maintaining the courts concerned.

As to the grant of jurisdiction in the Employers' Liability Act, that statute does not purport to require state courts to entertain suits arising under it, but only to empower them to do so, so far as the authority of the United States is concerned. It may very well be that, if the Supreme Court of New York were given no discretion, being otherwise competent, it would be subject to a

Page 279 U. S. 388

duty. But there is nothing in the Act of Congress that purports to force a duty upon such Courts as against an otherwise valid excuse. Second Employers' Liability Cases, 223 U. S. 1, 223 U. S. 56-57.

Judgment affirmed.


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