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Discretionary and Pendent Jurisdiction

Jurisdiction refers to the power of a court to hear a given case.  The term discretion denotes the absence of application of any hard and fast rule.  Pendent jurisdiction is a common-law device that allows a court to resolve all claims between opposing parties in one forum

In discretionary jurisdiction, right and equitable action is taken under a given circumstance and law; not exercised arbitrarily or willfully.  Additionally, discretion is directed by the reason and conscience of a judge to a just result.[i]

28 USCS § 1331 confers admiralty jurisdiction on the district courts.  However, its use is subject to the discretion of the court.  A district court has discretion to dismiss an action under the doctrine of forum non conveniens, although the law applicable in the alternative forum may be less favorable to the plaintiff’s chance of recovery.[ii] A district court can also dismiss an admiralty claim when foreigners agree to submit their dispute to the jurisdiction of a foreign court.

In admiralty matters, discretionary power is generally exercised by the district court in the following circumstances:

  • When a ship voluntarily enters the territorial limits of the country and subjects itself to the laws and jurisdiction of that country; or
  • When the question raised is whether an injunction should be issued by a federal court to a state court to prevent state court from proceeding on a claim with regard to which a ship-owner attempts to limit its liability.

Property or status being the primary object of action in in rem proceedings, an admiralty court in the absence of in rem proceedings may dismiss an action against a vessel, although the court has discretion to let the action stay inactive until attachment of the vessel is obtained.[iii]

Pendent jurisdiction is the authority of a U.S. district court to hear a closely related state law claim against a party already facing a federal claim.  Pendent jurisdiction, sometimes called ancillary jurisdiction or supplementary jurisdiction is a common-law device that allows a court to resolve all claims between opposing parties in one forum.  Unlike other forms of jurisdiction, pendent jurisdiction is discretionary.  Accordingly, a court can choose whether or not to exercise the jurisdiction in a given case.

District courts possess the power under U.S. Const. Art. III to exercise pendent jurisdiction over state claims provided:

  • the state and federal claims derive from a common fact such that a plaintiff would ordinarily be expected to try them all in one judicial proceeding; and
  • there is a substantiality of federal issues.

To warrant the exercise of pendent jurisdiction on a party over which the federal district court has no independent jurisdiction; a plaintiff must satisfy the court that congress in the statutes conferring jurisdiction has not negated the jurisdiction of district court [iv]

A district court can take jurisdiction of a state claim against one party if the state claim is related closely enough to a federal claim against another party, even though there was no independent jurisdictional base for the state claim.[v] Moreover, district court has also supplemental jurisdiction over a third party complaint that seeks indemnity for liability arising from a plaintiff’s maritime tort claim.[vi]

However, a court of admiralty cannot enforce an independent equitable claim merely because it pertains to maritime property.  The court can grant equitable relief where that relief was subsidiary to issues wholly within admiralty jurisdiction.  The district court in exercising its pendent jurisdiction, considers factors such as judicial economy, convenience and fairness to litigants.  The district courts will avoid needless decisions on state law.  If the federal claim, though substantial enough to confer jurisdiction, was dismissed before trial, the court will also dismiss the state claim.  Moreover, the district courts will dismiss the state claim in cases where the state claim was substantially predominate.[vii] However, if in an action under a federal statute, a compulsory counterclaim not involving a federal question if properly brought before a district court, such counter claim will be decided by the district court.[viii]

[i] In re Complaint of AMF, 543 F. Supp. 431 (S.D.N.Y. 1982)

[ii] Shepard Niles Crane & Hoist Corp. v. Fiat, S.P.A, 84 F.R.D. 299 (W.D.N.Y. 1979).

[iii] International Terminal Operating Co. v. Skibs A/S Hidlefjord, 63 F.R.D. 85 (D.N.Y. 1973)

[iv] Lingo v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co, 1989 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 16330 (E.D.N.Y. Oct. 23, 1989)

[v] Astor–Honor, Inc. v. Grosset & Dunlap, Inc, 441 F.2d 627 (2d Cir. 1971); Leather’s Best, Inc. v. S. S. Mormaclynx, 451 F.2d 800 (2d Cir. 1971).

[vi] McAllister Towing & Transp. Co. v. Thorn’s Diesel Serv., 163 F. Supp. 2d 1329 (M.D. Ala. 2001)

[vii] United Mine Workers v. Gibbs, 383 U.S. 715, 726–727 (1966)

[viii] Moore v. New York Cotton Exchange, 270 U.S. 593 (1926)

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