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Law School Case Brief

Stifel v. Hopkins - 477 F.2d 1116 (6th Cir. 1973)

Rule:

To acquire a domicile within a particular state, a person must be physically present in the state and must have either the intention to make his home there indefinitely or the absence of an intention to make his home elsewhere. A threshold inquiry then is whether a person has the legal capacity to form the intention to abide where he resides. Although in a federal diversity case the capacity of a person to sue or be sued is to be determined by the law of the state of the litigant's domicile, Fed. R. Civ. P. 17(b), and although state law may define certain concepts or relations that bear on the question of a litigant's disability to perform particular acts, the determination in a diversity case whether a litigant can acquire citizenship in a particular state is a federal question to be resolved in accordance with federal principles.

Facts:

Plaintiff Orville E. Stifel was convicted by a jury of violating 18 U.S.C.S. § 1716 (1970), by mailing an "infernal machine" that exploded and caused the death of the addressee upon opening the package. While serving his sentence in a Pennsylvania federal prison, Stifel filed a lawsuit against his parents, defendants Hildegarde A. Stifel and Orville E. Stifel, and against the attorney who represented him throughout the criminal proceedings, defendant William F. Hopkins. Reciting that Stifel was a citizen of Pennsylvania, that defendants were citizens of Ohio, and that the amount in controversy exceeded $10,000, the complaint, which was filed in United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, invoked the diversity jurisdiction of the court. The complaint asserted that Hopkins fraudulently induced Stifel to retain him and deliberately and negligently engaged in acts of professional misconduct to the detriment of Stifel; that Stifel’s parents had agreed to pay the attorney a large sum of money for representing him and then obtained a judgment in federal court against Stifel in the amount of their debt to Hopkins; and that Stifel was entitled to compensatory and punitive damages from Hopkins and to injunctive relief against the payment of any moneys by Stifel's parents to Hopkins. On Hopkins' motion to dismiss, the district court held that Stifel, who was incarcerated in a state other than the state of his domicile prior to conviction (Ohio), could not show that he was a citizen of Pennsylvania for purposes of federal diversity jurisdiction. Stifel appealed and argued that the rule of law that precluded a prisoner from showing that he had changed his domicile and thereby denied him access to federal courts was a rule that was based solely on the litigant's status as a prisoner and as such violated the due process clause. 

Issue:

Did the district err by ruling, as a matter law, that Stifel, as a federal prisoner incarcerated in a state other than the state of his domicile prior to conviction, could not show that he was a citizen of the state of incarceration for purposes of federal diversity jurisdiction?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The appellate court reversed the district court's judgment and remanded the matter for further proceedings. The court held that the district court should not have ruled as a matter of law that Stifel could not make the requisite showing of a change of domicile. Stifel should not have been precluded from showing that he had developed the intention to be domiciled at the place to which he had been forced to move; the presumption that he retained his former domicile was rebuttable. Furthermore, no statute or common-law rule existed to the effect that conviction and imprisonment destroyed a citizen's right to invoke diversity jurisdiction.

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