In Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp., the Supreme Court established a bright-line rule to guide lower courts in determining whether to treat a statutory element as a jurisdictional prerequisite or merely an essential ingredient of a particular claim:
If the Legislature clearly states that a threshold limitation on a statute’s scope shall count as jurisdictional, then courts and litigants will be duly instructed and will not be left to wrestle with the issue. . . . But when Congress does not rank a statutory limitation on coverage as jurisdictional, courts should treat the restriction as non-jurisdictional in character.
546 U.S. 500, 515-516 (2006) (internal citations omitted).
Last week the Tenth Circuit reaffirmed its position on a point of law first articulated in Sullivan v. Scoular Grain Co., in which the court “noted that federal question jurisdiction exists so long as the essential elements of an [Federal Employers Liability Act, or “FELA”] claim — including the defendant's common carrier and employer status — are alleged.” Smith v. Rail Link, Inc., No. 11-8011 (10th Cir. Oct. 23, 2012) (citing Sullivan v. Scoular Grain Co., 930 F.2d 798, 802-03 (10th Cir. 1991)).
The Tenth Circuit panel acknowledged that other circuits have taken the opposite view on the matter, but expressed confidence that it was on the right side of the conflict:
In light of the absence of discussion on the jurisdictional question in Sullivan, and subsequent Supreme Court teachings on the point (e.g., Arbaugh), we might question the precedential value of Sullivan's holding on this narrow question.
Nevertheless, because the FELA statute does not speak to these elements in jurisdictional terms, we see no reason to disturb the implicit conclusion reached in Sullivan.5 Accord Arbaugh, 546 U.S. at 511 (directing federal courts to focus on provisions of a statute explicitly speaking in jurisdictional terms when distinguishing between essential ingredients of a claim and jurisdictional requirements).6 Accordingly, consistent with Sullivan, we conclude that the district court had subject matter jurisdiction to hear this case, and thus had the power to enter final judgment.
5 Although the Supreme Court has not directly addressed this question, it has hinted that these elements are essential ingredients of a claim for relief under FELA rather than prerequisites to the exercise of federal question jurisdiction. See CSX Transportation, Inc. v. McBride, 131 S. Ct. 2630, 2644, 180 L. Ed. 2d 637 (2011) (speaking to "limitations" — as opposed to jurisdictional barriers — on "who may sue, and for what" when referring to a defendant's common carrier and employer status).
The Court has suggested that the requirement that an employee be engaged in interstate commerce at the time of injury is a jurisdictional requirement. See Reed v. Pennsylvania Rail Co., 351 U.S. 502, 508, 76 S. Ct. 958, 100 L. Ed. 1366 (1956) (upholding district court's exercise of federal question jurisdiction over a FELA claim on the ground that the plaintiff's employment duties were in furtherance of interstate commerce operations of a defendant who was undisputedly a common carrier employer). But it is logical to distinguish the "interstate commerce" element from the "common carrier" and "employer" elements given that the former justifies Congress legislating in this field in the first place under the Constitution's Commerce Clause, while the latter are requirements that Congress chose to impose separate from establishing its power to legislate.
In this case, there is no dispute whether Ms. Smith was furthering interstate commerce when she was injured — she was facilitating the loading of coal that will eventually be distributed around the country.
6 We recognize that holdings from other circuits suggest that these requirements are jurisdictional in nature. See Williamson v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 926 F.2d 1344, 1346 (3d Cir. 1991) (affirming district court's dismissal for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction where the case was brought under FELA and the trial court concluded that the defendant was not the plaintiff's employer as a matter of law); Mickler v. Nimishillen & Tuscarawas Railway Co., 13 F.3d 184 (6th Cir. 1993) ("The sole basis for federal jurisdiction in this case is FELA. Because defendant is not a common carrier and FELA does not apply, there is no federal question."); Aho v. Erie Mining Co., 466 F.2d 539 (8th Cir. 1972) (affirming district court's determination that jurisdiction was lacking where defendant in a FELA action was not a common carrier).
While there is substantial authority from our sibling circuits suggesting a conclusion different from the one we reaffirm today, we think that Sullivan's holding better accords with the Supreme Court's most recent teachings on the difference between essential elements of a claim (which are not jurisdictional) and jurisdictional requirements. Accordingly, we do not disturb it.
Smith v. Rail Link, Inc., No. 11-8011 (10th Cir. Oct. 23, 2012) (10th Cir. Wyo. Oct. 23, 2012).