Rule 19(b) — Indispensability of Necessary Party — Circuit Split over Standard of Appellate Review: Abuse of Discretion vs. De Novo

Marvel Characters, Inc. v. Kirby, 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 16396 (2d Cir. Aug. 8, 2013):

A. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 19

Rule 19 recognizes exceptional circumstances in which the plaintiff's choice of parties or forum must give way because of an absent party's interest in the outcome of the action or involvement in the underlying dispute. See generally 7 Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1602 (3d ed. 2008). The Rule's principal provisions are divided into two subsections. Subsection (a) protects certain parties by deeming them "required"; a party who is "required" according to the factors enumerated in subsection (a) is one whose participation is so desirable or important that the party must be joined so long as she or he is "subject to service of process" and joinder "will not deprive the court of subject-matter jurisdiction." Fed. R. Civ. P. 19(a)(1).

Subsection (b) addresses situations in which a party otherwise "required" under subsection (a) cannot be joined for some reason, for example (as in this case), want of personal jurisdiction. In such circumstances, Rule 19(b) requires courts to consider whether, "in equity and good conscience," the party is one without whom the action between the remaining parties cannot proceed -- or, in the traditional terminology, whether the absent party is "indispensable." Fed. R. Civ. P. 19(b); see also CP Solutions PTE, Ltd. v. General Electric Co., 553 F.3d 156, 159 n.2 (2d Cir. 2009) (per curiam).

We assume, for present purposes, that Lisa and Neal are "required" parties under Rule 19(a). They are also parties whose joinder is not feasible, inasmuch as we conclude that they are not amenable to personal jurisdiction in the Southern District of New York, and they are unwilling to consent to suit within the jurisdiction. The remainder of this discussion, then, centers on the effects of Rule 19(b) on these proceedings.

B. Indispensability

Because of the "flexible nature of Rule 19(b) analysis," we review a district court's decision under that rule for abuse of discretion. Universal Reinsurance Co., Ltd. v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 312 F.3d 82, 87 (2d Cir. 2002). Here, however, the district court decided -- mistakenly, as we have explained -- that it had personal jurisdiction over Lisa and Neal. The court therefore had no occasion to apply Rule 19(b).

Footnote 3. The standard of review applicable to Rule 19(b) is apparently the subject of a circuit split. See National Union Fire Ins. Co. v. Rite Aid of South Carolina, Inc., 210 F.3d 246, 250 n.7 (4th Cir. 2000) (recognizing the split and collecting cases); compare Universal Reinsurance Co., 312 F.3d at 87 (abuse of discretion), with Keweenaw Bay Indian Community v. Michigan, 11 F.3d 1341, 1346 (6th Cir. 1993) (abuse of discretion for Rule 19(a), but de novo for Rule 19(b}). In Republic of Philippines v. Pimentel, 553 U.S. 851 (2008), the Supreme Court passed on an opportunity to resolve the question, although it did suggest that the Rule's "in equity and good conscience" language "implies some degree of deference to the district court," id. at 864.

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