Henderson v. United States, 517 U.S. 654 (1996)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fifth circuit

No. 95-232. Argued March 19, 1996—Decided May 20, 1996

Petitioner Henderson filed this suit under the Suits in Admiralty Act for injuries he received as a seaman aboard a vessel owned by the United States. He accomplished service on the United States in the manner and within the time allowed by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4, which sets an extendable 120-day period for service. Service on the Attorney General occurred 47 days after the complaint was filed, but service on the United States Attorney, though timely under Rule 4's extendable deadline, took 148 days. The United States moved to dismiss the action, arguing that although the time and manner of service satisfied Rule 4's requirements, Henderson had failed to serve process "forthwith" as required by 2 of the Suits in Admiralty Act. The District Court dismissed Henderson's complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, based on Circuit precedent holding that 2's service "forthwith" requirement conditions the Government's waiver of sovereign immunity and is therefore a jurisdictional prerequisite. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The Suits in Admiralty Act's "forthwith" instruction for service of process has been superseded by Rule 4. Pp. 661-672. (a) Rule 4's regime conflicts irreconcilably with 2's service "forthwith" instruction. The Federal Rules convey a clear message that complaints are not to be dismissed if served within 120 days, or within such additional time as the court may allow, but 2's "forthwith" instruction is indicative of a far shorter time. The Government urges that the conflict dissolves if one reads Rule 4 as establishing not an affirmative right to serve a complaint within 120 days, but an outer boundary for timely service. Reading Rule 4 in its historical context, however, leads to the conclusion that the 120-day provision operates as an irreducible allowance. Pp. 661-663. (b) In the Rules Enabling Act, Congress ordered that, in matters of "practice and procedure," 28 U. S. C. 2072(a), the Federal Rules shall govern, and "[a]ll laws in conflict with such rules shall be of no further force or effect," 2072(b). Correspondingly, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 82 provides that the Rules cannot be construed to extend or limit federal jurisdiction. Section 2 of the Suits in Admiralty Act contains a

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