The Continuing Law-Equity Distinction
In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury shall be otherwise reexamined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
The Continuing Law-Equity Distinction.—The use of the term “common law” in the Amendment to indicate those cases in which the right to jury trial was to be preserved reﬂected, of course, the division of the English and United States legal systems into separate law and equity jurisdictions, in which actions cognizable in courts of law generally were triable to a jury whereas in equity there was no right to a jury. In the federal court system there were unitary courts having jurisdiction in both law and equity, but distinct law and equity procedures, including the use or nonuse of the jury. Adoption of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in 1938 merged law and equity into a single civil jurisdiction and established uniform rules of procedure. Legal and equitable claims which previously had to be brought as separate causes of action on different “sides” of the court could now be joined in a single action, and in some instances, such as compulsory counterclaims, had to be joined in one action.42 But the traditional distinction between law and equity for purposes of determining when there was a constitutional right to trial by jury remained and led to some difficulty.43
This difficulty has been resolved by stressing the fundamental nature of the jury trial right and protecting it against diminution through resort to equitable principles. In Beacon Theatres v. Westover,44 the Court held that a district court erred in trying all issues itself in an action in which the plaintiff sought a declaratory judgment and an injunction barring the defendant from instituting an antitrust action against it, and the defendant had filed a counterclaim alleging violation of the antitrust laws and asking for treble damages. It did not matter, the Court ruled, that the equitable claims had been filed first and the law counterclaims involved allegations common to the equitable claims. Subsequent jury trial of these issues would probably be precluded by collateral estoppel, hence “only under the most imperative circumstances which in view of the ﬂexible procedures of the Federal Rules we cannot now anticipate, can the right to a jury trial of legal issues be lost through prior determination of equitable claims.”45 Then, in Dairy Queen v. Wood,46 in which the plaintiff sought several types of relief, including an injunction and an accounting for money damages, the Court held that, even though the claim for legal relief was incidental to the equitable relief sought, the Seventh Amendment required that the issues pertaining to that legal relief be tried before a jury, because the primary rights being adjudicated were legal in character. Thus, the rule that emerged was that legal claims must be tried before equitable ones and before a jury if the litigant so wished.47
In Ross v. Bernhard,48 the Court further held that the right to a jury trial depends on the nature of the issue to be tried rather than the procedural framework in which it is raised. The case involved a stockholder derivative action,49 which has always been considered to be a suit in equity. The Court agreed that the action was equitable but asserted that it involved two separable claims. The first, the stockholder’s standing to sue for a corporation, is an equitable issue; the second, the corporation’s claim asserted by the stockholder, may be either equitable or legal. Because the 1938 merger of law and equity in the federal courts eliminated any procedural obstacles to transferring jurisdiction to the law side once the equitable issue of standing was decided, the Court continued, if the corporation’s claim being asserted by the stockholder was legal in nature, it should be heard on the law side and before a jury.50 Whether this analysis will be followed in other areas so that the right to a jury trial extends to all legal issues in actions formerly within equity’s concurrent jurisdiction is a question now open.51
42 5 J. Moore, Federal Practice §§ 38.01–38.05 (2d ed. 1971).
43 Under the old equity rules, it had been held that the absolute right to a trial of the facts by a jury could not be impaired by any blending with a claim, properly cognizable at law, of a demand for equitable relief in aid of the legal action or during its pendency. Hipp v. Babin, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 271, 278 (1857). The Seventh Amendment was interpreted to mean that equitable and legal issues could not be tried in the same suit, so that such aid in the federal courts had to be sought in separate proceedings. Scott v. Neely, 140 U.S. 106, 109 (1891); Bennett v. Butterworth, 52 U.S. (11 How.) 669 (1850); Lewis v. Cocks, 90 U.S. (23 Wall.) 466, 470 (1874); Killian v. Ebbinghaus, 110 U.S. 568, 573 (1884); Buzard v. Houston, 119 U.S. 347, 351 (1886). If an action at law evoked an equitable counterclaim, the trial judge would order the legal issues to be separately tried after the disposition of the equity issues. In this procedure, however, res judicata and collateral estoppel could operate so as to curtail the litigant’s right to a jury finding on factual issues common to both claims. But priority of scheduling was considered to be a matter of discretion. Federal statutes prohibiting courts of the United States from sustaining suits in equity if the remedy was complete at law served to guard the right of trial by jury and were liberally construed. Schoenthal v. Irving Trust Co., 287 U.S. 92, 94 (1932). Nor was the distinction between law and equity to be obliterated by state legislation. Thompson v. Railroad Companies, 73 U.S. (6 Wall.) 134 (1868). So, if state law, in advance of judgment, treated the whole proceeding upon a simple contract, including determination of validity and of amount due, as an equitable proceeding, it brought the case within the federal equity jurisdiction upon removal. Ascertainment of plaintiff’s demand being properly by action at law, however, the fact that the equity court had power to summon a jury on occasion did not afford an equivalent of the right of trial by jury secured by the Seventh Amendment. Whitehead v. Shattuck, 138 U.S. 146 (1891); Buzard v. Houston, 119 U.S. 347 (1886); Greeley v. Lowe, 155 U.S. 58, 75 (1894). But where state law gave an equitable remedy, such as to quiet title to land, the federal courts enforced it, if it did not obstruct the rights of the parties as to trial by jury. Clark v. Smith, 38 U.S. (13 Pet.) 195 (1839); Holland v. Challen, 110 U.S. 15 (1884); Reynolds v. Crawfordsville Bank, 112 U.S. 405 (1884); Chapman v. Brewer, 114 U.S. 158 (1885); Cummings v. National Bank, 101 U.S. 153, 157 (1879); United States v. Landram, 118 U.S. 81 (1886); More v. Steinbach, 127 U.S. 70 (1888). Cf. Ex parte Simons, 247 U.S. 321 (1918). By the inclusion in the Law and Equity Act of 1915 of § 274(b) of the Judicial Code, 38 Stat. 956, the transfer of cases to the other side of the court was made possible. The new procedure permitted legal questions arising in an equity action to be determined therein without sending the case to the law side. This section also permitted equitable defenses to be interposed in an action at law. The same order was preserved as under the system of separate courts. The equitable issues were disposed of first, and if a legal issue remained, it was triable by a jury. Enelow v. New York Life Ins. Co., 293 U.S. 379 (1935). See also Liberty Oil Co. v. Condon Bank, 260 U.S. 235 (1922). There was no provision for legal counterclaims in an equitable action, for the reason that Equity Rule 30, requiring the answer to a bill in equity to state any counterclaim arising out of the same transaction, was not intended to change the line between law and equity and was construed as referring to equitable counterclaims only. American Mills Co. v. American Surety Co., 260 U.S. 360, 364 (1922); Stamey v. United States, 37 F.2d 188 (W.D. Wash. 1929). Equitable jurisdiction existing at the time of the filing of the bill was not disturbed by the subsequent availability of legal remedies, and the scheduling was discretionary. American Life Ins. Co. v. Stewart, 300 U.S. 203 (1937).
44 359 U.S. 500 (1959).
45 359 U.S. at 510–11.
46 369 U.S. 469 (1962).
47 If legal and equitable claims are joined, and the court erroneously dismisses the legal claims and decides common issues in the equitable action, the plaintiff cannot be collaterally estopped from relitigating those common issues in a jury trial. Lytle v. Household Manufacturing, Inc., 494 U.S. 545 (1990).
48 396 U.S. 531 (1970).
49 The stockholders’ derivative action is a creation of equity made necessary by the traditional concept of “the corporate entity” or the “concept of separate personality.” That is, the corporation is an entity distinct and separate from its shareholders. Thus, while shareholders were relieved from unlimited liability for corporate liabilities, the complementary result was that harm to the corporation did not confer any right of action upon a shareholder to sue to right that harm. But if the harm were caused by the abuse of those who managed and controlled the corporation, the corporation naturally would not proceed against them and the common law courts would not allow the shareholders to bring an action running to the “separate personality” of the corporation; equity thus permitted a derivative action in which the shareholder is permitted to set in motion the adjudication of a cause of action belonging to the corporation. Prunty, The Shareholders’ Derivative Suit: Notes on Its Derivation, 32 N.Y.U. L. REV. 980 (1957).
50 Justices Stewart and Harlan and Chief Justice Burger dissented, arguing that the Seventh Amendment did not expand the right to a jury trial, that the Rules simply preserved the right as it had existed, and that it was error to think that the two could somehow “magically interact” to enlarge the right in a way that neither did alone. Ross v. Bernhard, 396 U.S. 531, 543 (1970).
51 Among the possibilities in which a legal right was enforceable in equity in the absence of an adequate remedy at law are suits to compel specific performance of a contract, suits for cancellation of a contract, and suits to enjoin tortious action. On Ross’ implications, see J. Moore, Federal Practice §§ 38.11[8.–8], 38.11 (2d ed. 1971).