Semtek Int'l Inc. v. Lockheed Martin Corp., 531 U.S. 497 (2001)

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certiorari to the court of special appeals of maryland

No. 99-1551. Argued December 5, 2000—Decided February 27, 2001

Respondent removed petitioner's California state-court suit to a California Federal District Court based on diversity of citizenship, and successfully moved to dismiss the case "on the merits" as barred by California's statute of limitations. Petitioner then brought suit in a Maryland Circuit Court, alleging the same causes of action, which were not time barred under Maryland's statute of limitations. That court dismissed the case on the ground of res judicata. In affirming, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals held that, regardless of whether California would have accorded claim-preclusive effect to a statute-of-limitations dismissal by one of its own courts, the California federal court's dismissal barred the Maryland complaint because the res judicata effect of federal diversity judgments is prescribed by federal law, under which the earlier dismissal was on the merits and claim preclusive.

Held: Because the claim-preclusive effect of a federal court's dismissal

"upon the merits" of a diversity action on state statute-of-limitations grounds is governed by a federal rule, which in turn (in diversity cases) incorporates the claim-preclusion law that would be applied by state courts in the State in which the federal court sits, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals erred in holding that the California federal court's dismissal "upon the merits" necessarily precluded the Maryland state-court action. Pp. 500-509.

(a) Dupasseur v. Rochereau, 21 Wall. 130, held that the res judicata effect of a federal diversity judgment "is such as would belong to judgments of the State courts rendered under similar circumstances," id., at 135. That case is not dispositive here, however, because it was decided under the Conformity Act of 1872, which required federal courts to apply the procedural law of the forum State in nonequity cases. Neither is claim-preclusive effect demanded by Rule 41(b)—which provides that, unless the court "otherwise specifies," an involuntary dismissal, other than a dismissal for lack of jurisdiction, improper venue, or failure to join a party under Rule 19, "operates as an adjudication upon the merits." Although the original connotation of a judgment "on the merits" was one that passes directly on the substance of a claim


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