MR. JUSTICE HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.
Petitioner challenges, from the standpoint of both power and discretion, the District Court's sua sponte dismissal of this diversity negligence action under circumstances that follow.
The action, growing out of a collision between petitioner's automobile and one of respondent's trains, was commenced on August 24, 1954. Some six years later, and more than three years after petitioner had finally prevailed on respondent's motion for judgment on the pleadings (during which time two fixed trial dates had been postponed),
When petitioner's counsel did not appear at the pretrial conference the District Court, after reviewing the history of the case
The authority of a federal trial court to dismiss a plaintiff's action with prejudice because of his failure to prosecute cannot seriously be doubted.
Petitioner contends that the language of this Rule, by negative implication, prohibits involuntary dismissals for failure of the plaintiff to prosecute except upon motion by the defendant. In the present case there was no such motion.
We do not read Rule 41 (b) as implying any such restriction. Neither the permissive language of the Rule—which merely authorizes a motion by the defendant—nor its policy requires us to conclude that it was the purpose of the Rule to abrogate the power of courts, acting on their own initiative, to clear their calendars of cases that have remained dormant because of the inaction or dilatoriness of the parties seeking relief. The authority of a court to dismiss sua sponte for lack of prosecution has generally been considered an "inherent power," governed not by rule or statute but by the control necessarily vested in courts to manage their own affairs so as to
Nor does the absence of notice as to the possibility of dismissal or the failure to hold an adversary hearing necessarily render such a dismissal void. It is true, of course, that "the fundamental requirement of due process is an opportunity to be heard upon such notice and proceedings as are adequate to safeguard the right for which the constitutional protection is invoked." Anderson National Bank v. Luckett, 321 U.S. 233, 246. But this does not mean that every order entered without notice and a preliminary adversary hearing offends due process. The adequacy of notice and hearing respecting proceedings that may affect a party's rights turns, to a considerable extent, on the knowledge which the circumstances show such party may be taken to have of the consequences of his own conduct. The circumstances here were such as to dispense with the necessity for advance notice and hearing.
In addition, the availability of a corrective remedy such as is provided by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60 (b)—which authorizes the reopening of cases in which final orders have been inadvisedly entered—renders the lack of prior notice of less consequence. Petitioner never sought to avail himself of the escape hatch provided by Rule 60 (b).
On this record we are unable to say that the District Court's dismissal of this action for failure to prosecute, as evidenced only partly by the failure of petitioner's counsel to appear at a duly scheduled pretrial conference, amounted to an abuse of discretion. It was certainly within the bounds of permissible discretion for the court to conclude that the telephone excuse offered by petitioner's counsel was inadequate to explain his failure to attend. And it could reasonably be inferred from his absence, as well as from the drawn-out history of the litigation (see note 2, supra),
There is certainly no merit to the contention that dismissal of petitioner's claim because of his counsel's unexcused conduct imposes an unjust penalty on the client. Petitioner voluntarily chose this attorney as his representative in the action, and he cannot now avoid the consequences of the acts or omissions of this freely selected
We need not decide whether unexplained absence from a pretrial conference would alone justify a dismissal with prejudice if the record showed no other evidence of dilatoriness on the part of the plaintiff. For the District Court in this case relied on all the circumstances that were brought to its attention, including the earlier delays.
Nor need we consider whether the District Court would have been abusing its discretion had it rejected a motion under Rule 60 (b) which was accompanied by a more adequate explanation for the absence of petitioner's counsel from the pretrial conference. No such motion was ever
Finally, this is not a case in which failure to comply with a court order "was due to inability fostered neither by . . . [petitioner's] own conduct nor by circumstances within its control." Societe Internationale v. Rogers, 357 U.S. 197, 211. Petitioner's counsel received due notice of the scheduling of the pretrial conference, and cannot now be heard to say that he could not have foreseen the consequences of his own default in attendance.
MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER took no part in the decision of this case.
MR. JUSTICE WHITE took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.
MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS dissents.
MR. JUSTICE BLACK, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE concurs, dissenting.
I think that the order of the District Court dismissing this case has no sound basis in law, in fact or in justice. The petitioner William Link brought an action to recover damages for alleged serious and permanent injuries suffered in a collision between his truck and a train operated by the respondent Wabash Railroad Company. The District Court dismissed that action without notice of any kind to the plaintiff Link or to his lawyer shortly after the lawyer failed to appear at a scheduled pretrial conference without what the trial judge regarded as an adequate excuse. The order of dismissal apparently purports to end petitioner's lawsuit and bar forever his right
As I understand the opinion of the Court here, it upholds the District Court's dismissal order upon the ground of "want of prosecution" and "dilatoriness on the part of the plaintiff," making it unnecessary, as the Court views the case, to "decide whether unexplained absence from a pretrial conference would alone justify a dismissal with prejudice . . . ." I do not think that there is any basis in the record to support a dismissal of this case for "want of prosecution," for "dilatoriness on the part of the plaintiff" or for any other reason. In the first place, it seems to me
Secondly, I think that this Court's decision to ignore the single ground upon which I believe that the Court of Appeals rested and to resurrect the "want of prosecution" theory from the trial court colloquy is wrong because this case has been a very live one from the date it was filed right up to this very moment. It is true that the case when dismissed had been pending for a long time, that is, from August 24, 1954, to the date of dismissal, October 12, 1960. But during this entire period of time, motions and activities of various kinds both by the lawyers and by the trial judge were taking place in the court. Certainly it would be impossible for anyone to suggest that the plaintiff Link
Upon remand, the District Court set the case for hearing on July 17, 1957, but this order was vacated and the cause continued "on motion of the plaintiff, and defendant not objecting . . . ." This continuance of the case by agreement between the plaintiff and the defendant of course provides not even a scintilla of evidence to support a dismissal for want of prosecution. Two months later, in an effort to buttress its defense for the approaching trial on the merits, the railroad filed interrogatories which the plaintiff answered. It is true that these interrogatories were not answered until some 19 months after they were filed. But there is no indication in the record that the defendant tried to get the interrogatories answered earlier. And every trial lawyer knows that the failure of a lawyer
Five months after the plaintiff answered defendant's March 11 interrogatories, the trial judge, again on his own motion, issued notice scheduling a pretrial conference on October 12, 1960. This was the pretrial
Under the foregoing facts, it seems to me that it inflicts the grossest kind of injustice upon this petitioner to
Even assuming in the face of these plain facts, however, that all the blame for the six years' delay in this case could be laid at the feet of plaintiff's lawyer, it seems to me to be contrary to the most fundamental ideas of fairness and justice to impose the punishment for the lawyer's failure to prosecute upon the plaintiff who, so far as this record shows, was simply trusting his lawyer to take care of his case as clients generally do. The Court dismisses this whole question of punishing the plaintiff
Link filed an action in court, as was his right, alleging the infliction of serious injuries upon him by the railroad for which he sought damages. His case was delayed for three years because of the trial judge's erroneous ruling on a question of the technical sufficiency of the complaint, a ruling which, if it had not been reversed, would have frustrated the plaintiff's right to a trial on the merits. This ruling of course should never have been made, for it was plainly inconsistent with the whole philosophy underlying the modern liberal rules of procedure which govern civil trials in the federal courts. When the Court of Appeals upheld the complaint, reversed the trial court and remanded the case for trial, the parties engaged in a number of activities obviously designed to bring the case to trial. On at least two separate occasions, the plaintiff himself was called upon to respond to interrogatories submitted by the railroad. Under these circumstances, the plaintiff simply had no way of knowing that there was even the slightest danger that his potentially valuable lawsuit was going to be thrown out of court because of some default on the part of his lawyer. Quite the contrary, the plaintiff had every reason to believe that his lawyer, who had obtained reversal of the trial judge's
There surely can be no doubt that if the plaintiff's lawyer had gone into court without authority and asked the court to dismiss the case so as to bar any future suit from being filed, this Court would repudiate such conduct and give the plaintiff a remedy for the wrong so perpetrated against him. Or had the trial judge here, instead of putting an end to plaintiff's substantial cause of action, simply imposed a fine of several thousand dollars upon the plaintiff because of his lawyer's neglect, I cannot doubt that this Court would unanimously reverse such an unjust penalty. The result actually reached here, however, is that this Court condones a situation no different in fact from either of those described above. The plaintiff's cause of action is valuable property within the generally accepted sense of that word, and, as such, it is entitled to the protections of the Constitution. Due process requires that property shall not be taken away without notice and hearing. I do not see how the result here can be squared with that fundamental constitutional requirement.
Moreover, to say that the sins or faults or delinquencies of a lawyer must always be visited upon his client so as to impose tremendous financial penalties upon him, as here, is to ignore the practicalities and realities of the lawyer-client relationship.
The Court seems to find some reason for holding that this plaintiff can be penalized without notice because of a program certain courts have adopted to end congestion on their dockets by setting down long-pending cases for trial. It is of course desirable that the congestion on court dockets be reduced in every way possible consistent with the fair administration of justice. But that laudable objective should not be sought in a way which undercuts the very purposes for which courts were created— that is, to try cases on their merits and render judgments in accordance with the substantial rights of the parties. Where a case has so little merit that it is not being prosecuted, a trial court can of course properly dispose of it under fair constitutional procedures. There is not one fact in this record, however, from which an inference can be drawn that the case of Link against the Wabash Railroad Company is such a case. When we allow the desire to reduce court congestion to justify the sacrifice of substantial rights of the litigants in cases like this, we attempt to promote speed in administration, which is
Moreover, it seems plain to me that any attempt to cut down on court congestion by dismissing meritorious lawsuits is doomed to fail even in its misguided purpose of promoting speed in judicial administration. Litigants with meritorious lawsuits are not likely to accept unfair rulings of that kind without exhausting all available appellate remedies. Consequently, any reduction of trial court dockets accomplished by such dismissals will be more than offset by the increased burden on appellate courts. This case seems to me an excellent example of the sort of wholly unnecessary waste of judicial resources which can result from such overzealous protection of trial court dockets. The case has twice been before the Court of Appeals and has twice been brought to this Court as a result of "time-saving" rulings handed down by the trial judge.
It is true that by its ruling today the Court finally puts an end to this case and thus clears it from all federal dockets. But in view of the fact that the merits of the case have never been reached, I cannot believe that there should be too much rejoicing at this fact. The end result of the procedures adopted here has been that much time has been wasted and yet no justice has been done. I find it highly regrettable that the Court feels compelled to place its stamp of approval upon such procedures.
It may not be of much importance to anyone other than the plaintiff here and his family whether this case is tried on its merits or not. To my mind, however, it is of very great importance to everyone in this country that we do not establish the practice of throwing litigants out of court without notice to them solely because they are credulous enough to entrust their cases to lawyers whose names are accredited as worthy and capable by their government. I fear that this case is not likely to stand out in the future as the best example of American justice.
"On August 24, 1954, plaintiff William Link filed his complaint in the district court against defendant The Wabash Railroad Company to recover damages for injuries alleged to have been sustained by him when he drove an automobile into a collision with defendant's train standing across a highway in Indiana.
"On September 17, 1954, defendant appeared and filed its answer to the complaint.
"On April 30, 1955, defendant filed its motion for judgment on the pleadings. On October 18, 1955, hearing was had on this motion. On November 30, 1955, the district court granted defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings and ordered the cause dismissed. From this order of dismissal plaintiff appealed. On October 10, 1956, our court reversed and remanded the case for trial. . . . 237 F.2d 1, certiorari denied 352 U.S. 1003 . . . (February 25, 1957). On March 13, 1957, the mandate from this court was filed in the district court.
"Subsequently, the trial court set the case for trial for July 17, 1957. On June 27, 1957, on motion of plaintiff and defendant not objecting, the trial date of July 17, 1957 was vacated; and the cause was continued.
"On August 17, 1957, defendant filed interrogatories for plaintiff to answer.
"On February 24, 1959, the trial court on its own initiative gave notice to the parties, pursuant to Local Rule 11 [footnote omitted], that the cause would be dismissed on March 25, 1959, unless the court ordered otherwise.
"On March 24, 1959, plaintiff filed answers to defendant's interrogatories.
"On March 25, 1959, hearing was had on the show cause order, and on June 4, 1959 the trial court entered an order retaining the case on the docket and setting it for trial for July 22, 1959.
"On July 2, 1959, on defendant's motion, to which plaintiff agreed, the trial date of July 22, 1959 was vacated; and the case was continued.
"On March 11, 1960, defendant filed additional interrogatories for plaintiff to answer. On April 15, 1960, after an extension of time granted by the trial court, plaintiff filed answers to the additional interrogatories.
"On September 29, 1960, pursuant to Local Rule 12, effective March 1, 1960, the district court caused notice to be mailed to counsel for both parties scheduling a pre-trial conference in this case to be held in court on October 12, 1960, at 1:00 o'clock p. m." 291 F. 2d, at 543-544.