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Fourth Circuit Reverses Seaman Analysis in Jones Act Appeal

By Robyn Hagan Cain on February 28, 2012 3:05 PM

Before you appeal a 12(b)(1) dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, ask yourself: Am I really sure this is a jurisdiction issue? Should we be debating a 12(b)(6) motion instead?

That moment of reflection could save you the embarrassment of an appellate court's admonishment that you don't know the "fundamental difference" between 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) motions.

The attorneys in a recent Jones Act appeal, no doubt, wish they had paused to consider that issue after the Fourth Circuit criticized both the parties in this appeal and the district court for misunderstanding the basics of subject matter jurisdiction.

Timothy Holloway filed the lawsuit in question under the Jones Act, which provides that "A seaman injured in the course of employment ... may elect to bring a civil action at law, with the right of trial by jury, against the employer." The Jones Act gives federal court subject matter jurisdiction to hear such claims. To state a claim under the Jones Act, a plaintiff must allege "that he is a seaman under the Act who suffered injury in the course of his employment, that his employer was negligent, and that his employer's negligence caused his injury at least in part."

Holloway alleged in his lawsuit that he was a seaman employed by defendants Pagan River and Joseph Melzer, and was injured in the course of employment due to their negligence. The defendants countered that Holloway was a self-employed independent contractor who leased a boat from them, and moved to dismiss his claim under Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6).

The district court granted the 12(b)(1) motion for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, finding that Holloway had not adequately demonstrated that he was a seaman and that his injury occurred during the course of employment as a seaman.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court, finding that the district court generally has federal question jurisdiction over Jones Act claims and Holloway's complaint alleged a colorable Jones Act claim, even though the facts to support his "conclusory allegations appear to be thin in some instances and in many instances are disputed." (As you can see, no one emerged from this opinion unscathed.)

Adding insult to alleged injury, the Fourth Circuit lumped the district court's 12(b)(1) dismissal into the shameful category of "drive-by jurisdictional rulings" that the Supreme Court has warned against, noting that courts should explicitly consider whether dismissal should be for lack of subject matter jurisdiction or for failure to state a claim.

Challenges to the sufficiency of a complaint, or the evidence pleaded to support a complaint, should be handled under Rules 12(b)(6), 12(c), or 56. If you're involved in a 12(b)(1) appeal, and you think the district judge missed the mark, save face in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals by mentioning the proper rule for analysis.

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