Pendent Parties Under the Federal Tort Claim Act: The Supreme Court, Round Two


Linda S Mullenix

11 Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases 301


This article previews the issues and arguments in Finley v. United States, on the Supreme Court’s 1988-89 appellate docket. The issue presented in Finley is whether a federal district court can assert jurisdiction over pendent parties for whom there is no independent federal jurisdictional basis, where the plaintiff has a good federal claim against the United States government under the Federal Tort Claims Act.Article III of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to establish the federal courts and also defines the judicial power of those courts. Thus, the Constitution provides that federal courts may hear cases that arise under the Constitution, the laws of the United States, and its treaties.

Although it is generally acknowledged that federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction and federal question jurisdiction is narrowly construed, the Supreme Court in 1966 articulated a doctrine of "pendent jurisdiction" that gave more expansive scope to federal court jurisdiction. UMW v. Gibbs. Basically, the doctrine of pendent jurisdiction allows a federal court to hear a state-based legal claim that does not have an independent federal jurisdictional basis. The federal court will adjudicate the state claim if it arises from a common nucleus of operative facts with the federal claim.

The notion of pendent claim jurisdiction is well-established and frequently utilized in federal courts. Finley raises the interesting issue of whether "pendent parties" are similarly amenable to federal court jurisdiction. The Supreme Court has already rejected a broad concept of pendent party jurisdiction. Aldinger v. Howard. However, in Aldinger, the Supreme Court left open the possibility that in some cases, a doctrine of pendent parties might be available under certain statutory schemes. In particular, the Court suggested that a suit arising under the Federal Tort Claims Act might prove an instance where pendent party jurisdiction was appropriate.

Since the Supreme Court has already suggested that the Federal Tort Claims Act might provide a basis for pendent party jurisdiction, the Court has the opportunity in Finley, a case directly based on the Federal Tort Claims Act, to give full expression to such a doctrine. This would resolve a conflict among the lower federal courts concerning the possibility of pendent party jurisdiction.Although the doctrine of pendent claim jurisdiction was readily accepted into judicial canons, the problem of pendent parties has proved "more subtle and complex."

Thus, only 10 years after Gibbs, the Supreme Court determined that there was no analogous doctrine of pendent parties available in a civil rights action that would permit the addition of a county defendant for whom there was no independent federal jurisdictional basis. The Court distinguished the problem of pendent parties as factually and legally different from Gibbs. Pendent party jurisdiction was rejected because it would enable a plaintiff who had asserted one good federal claim against a defendant to join an entirely different defendant, based on a state-law claim, for whom there was no good federal jurisdiction. With pendent claim jurisdiction, on the contrary, a state-based claim was added where all the parties already were present in the suit.

Although the Supreme Court rejected the notion of pendent parties in the circumstances of that lawsuit, the Court did leave open the possibility that in certain circumstances such a doctrine might be appropriate and useful to the federal courts. Specifically, the Court directed that when the issue of pendent parties was raised, the federal court would have to satisfy itself both that Article III permitted pendent party jurisdiction and that Congress had not, by some express or implied action, rejected pendent party jurisdiction in the statute conferring a cause of action. Thus, the Court acknowledged that pendent party jurisdiction might be feasible in a different case, such as one brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

The Aldinger case, then, while rejecting pendent party jurisdiction on the narrow facts in that case, was an invitation to lower federal courts to fashion a doctrine of pendent party jurisdiction. The lower federal courts at both the district and appellate level have accepted this invitation and found good pendent party jurisdiction under a variety of federal provisions. Arguably, only the 9th Circuit rejects the concept. In addition to finding good pendent party jurisdiction under the Federal Tort Claims Act, other federal courts have upheld the doctrine variously under the Federal Deposit Insurance Act, the Securities and Exchange Act, and the Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Savings Act.

Thus, the Supreme Court in Finley again has the opportunity to revisit the doctrine of pendent party jurisdiction and to clarify Aldinger. The Court will have the chance to construe the legislative history of the Federal Tort Claims Act to determine whether Congress intended, under that provision, to allow pendent parties in cases such as Finley's.

Full Citation

Linda S. Mullenix, Pendent Parties Under the Federal Tort Claim Act: The Supreme Court, Round Two, 1988-89 Preview of U.S. Supreme Court Cases 301.