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Water Splash, Inc. v. Menon

United States Supreme Court

May 22, 2017

WATER SPLASH, INC., PETITIONER
v.
TARA MENON

          Argued March 22, 2017

         CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS OF TEXAS, FOURTEENTH DISTRICT

         Petitioner Water Splash sued respondent Menon, a former employee, in a Texas state court, alleging that she had begun working for a competitor while still employed by Water Splash. Because Menon resided in Canada, Water Splash obtained permission to effect service by mail. After Menon declined to answer or otherwise enter an appearance, the trial court issued a default judgment for Water Splash. That court subsequently denied Menon's motion to set aside the judgment on the ground that she had not been properly served. On appeal, Menon argued that service by mail does not comport with the requirements of the Convention on the Service Abroad of Judicial and Extrajudicial Documents in Civil and Commercial Matters (Hague Service Convention), which seeks to simplify, standardize, and generally improve the process of serving documents abroad, specifying certain approved methods of service and preempting "inconsistent methods of service" wherever it applies, Volkswagenwerk Aktieng-esellschaft v. Schlunk, 486 U.S. 694, 699. The Texas Court of Appeals agreed with Menon, holding that the Convention prohibited service of process by mail. Article 10, the provision at issue, consists of Articles 10(b) and 10(c), which plainly address permissible methods of "service, " and Article 10(a), which provides that the Convention will not interfere with "the freedom to send judicial documents, by postal channels, directly to persons abroad, " but does not expressly refer to "service."

         Held:

The Hague Service Convention does not prohibit service of process by mail. Pp. 4-12.

         (a) This Court begins its analysis by looking to the treaty's text and the context in which its words are used. See Schlunk, 486 U.S., at 699. The key word in Article 10(a)-"send"-is a broad term, and there is no apparent reason why it would exclude the transmission of documents for the purpose of service. The structure of the Convention strongly counsels against such an exclusion. The Convention's preamble and Article 1 limit the scope of the Convention to service of documents abroad, and its full title includes the phrase "Service Abroad." This Court has also held that the scope of the Convention is limited to service of documents. Id., at 701. It would thus be quite strange if Article 10(a)-apparently alone among the Convention's provisions-concerned something other than service of documents. Indeed, such a reading would render Article 10(a) superfluous. Article 10's function is to ensure that, generally, the Convention "shall not interfere" with the activities described in 10(a), 10(b), and 10(c). But since Article 1 already "eliminates [the] possibility" that the Convention would apply to any communications that "do not culminate in service, " id., at 701, in order for Article 10(a) to do any work, it must pertain to sending documents for the purposes of service. Menon's attempt to avoid this superfluity problem by suggesting that Article 10(a) applies not to service of process but only to the service of "post-answer judicial documents" lacks any plausible textual footing in Article 10. If the drafters wished to limit Article 10(a) to a particular subset of documents, they could have said so-as they did, e.g., in Article 15, which refers to "a writ of summons or an equivalent document." Instead, Article 10(a) uses the term "judicial documents"- the same term featured in 10(b) and 10(c). And the ordinary meaning of the word "send" is broad enough to cover the transmission of any judicial documents. Accordingly, the text and structure of the Convention indicate that Article 10(a) encompasses service by mail. Pp. 4-6.

         (b) The main counterargument-that Article 10(a)'s phrase "send judicial documents" should mean something different than the phrase "effect service of judicial documents" in Article 10(b) and Article 10(c)-is unpersuasive. First, it must contend with the compelling structural considerations strongly suggesting that Article 10(a) pertains to service of documents. Second, reading the word "send" as a broad concept that includes, but is not limited to, service is probably more plausible than interpreting the word to exclude service, and it does not create the same superfluity problem. Third, the French version of the Convention, which is "equally authentic" to the English version, Schlunk, supra, at 699, uses the word "adresser, " which has consistently been understood to mean service or notice. At best, Menon's argument creates an ambiguity as to Article 10(a)'s meaning. The Court thus turns to additional tools of treaty interpretation, which comfortably resolve any lingering ambiguity in Water Splash's favor. Pp. 7-8.

         (c)Three extratextual sources are especially helpful in ascertaining Article 10(a)'s meaning. First, the Convention's drafting history strongly suggests that the drafters understood that service by postal channels was permissible. Second, in the half-century since the Convention was adopted, the Executive Branch has consistently maintained that the Hague Service Convention allows service by mail. Finally, other signatories to the Convention have consistently adopted Water Splash's view. Pp. 8-12.

         (d)The fact that Article 10(a) encompasses service by mail does not mean that it affirmatively authorizes such service. Rather, service by mail is permissible if the receiving state has not objected to service by mail and if such service is authorized under otherwise-applicable law. Because the Court of Appeals concluded that the Convention prohibited service by mail, it did not consider whether Texas law authorizes the methods of service used by Water Splash. That and any other remaining issues are left to be considered on remand to the extent they are properly preserved. P. 12. 472 S.W.3d 28, vacated and remanded.

          ALITO, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except GORSUCH, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

          OPINION

          ALITO JUSTICE.

         This case concerns the scope of the Convention on the Service Abroad of Judicial and Extrajudicial Documents in Civil and Commercial Matters, Nov. 15, 1965 (Hague Service Convention), 20 U.S. T. 361, T. I. A. S. No. 6638. The purpose of that multilateral treaty is to simplify, standardize, and generally improve the process of serving documents abroad. Preamble, ibid.; see Volkswagenwerk Aktiengesellschaft v. Schlunk, 486 U.S. 694, 698 (1988). To that end, the Hague Service Convention specifies certain approved methods of service and "pre-empts inconsistent methods of service" wherever it applies. Id., at 699. Today we address a question that has divided the lower courts: whether the Convention prohibits service by mail. We hold that it does not.

         I

         A

         Petitioner Water Splash is a corporation that produces aquatic playground systems. Respondent Menon is a former employee of Water Splash. In 2013, Water Splash sued Menon in state court in Texas, alleging that she had begun working for a competitor while still employed by Water Splash. 472 S.W.3d 28, 30 (Tex. App. 2015). Water Splash asserted several causes of action, including unfair competition, conversion, and tortious interference with business relations. Because Menon resided in Canada, Water Splash sought and obtained permission to effect service by mail. Ibid. After Menon declined to answer or otherwise enter an appearance, the trial court issued a default judgment in favor of Water Splash. Menon moved to set aside the judgment on the ground that she had not been properly served, but the trial court denied the motion. Ibid.

         Menon appealed, arguing that service by mail does not "comport with the requirements of the Hague Service Convention." Ibid. The Texas Court of Appeals majority sided with Menon and held that the Convention prohibits service of process by mail. Id., at 32. Justice Christopher dissented. Id., at 34. The Court of Appeals declined to review the matter en banc, App. 95-96, and the Texas Supreme Court denied discretionary review, id., at 97-98.

         The disagreement between the panel majority and Justice Christopher tracks a broader conflict among courts as to whether the Convention permits service through postal channels. Compare, e.g., Bankston v. Toyota Motor Corp., 889 F.2d 172, 173-174 (CA8 1989) (holding that the Convention prohibits service by mail), and Nuovo Pignone, SpA v. Storman Asia M/V, 310 F.3d 374, 385 (CA5 2002) (same), with, e.g., Brockmeyer v. May, 383 F.3d 798, 802 (CA9 2004) (holding that the Convention allows service by mail), and Ackermann v. Levine, 788 F.2d 830, 838-840 (CA2 1986) (same). We granted certiorari to resolve that conflict. 580 U.S. ___ (2016).

         B

         The "primary innovation" of the Hague Service Convention-set out in Articles 2-7-is that it "requires each state to establish a central authority to receive requests for service of documents from other countries." Schlunk, supra, at 698. When a central authority receives an appropriate request, it must serve the documents or arrange for their service, Art. 5, and then provide a certificate of service, Art. 6.

         Submitting a request to a central authority is not, however, the only method of service approved by the Convention. For example, Article 8 permits service through diplomatic and consular agents; Article 11 provides that any two states can agree to methods of service not otherwise specified in the Convention; and Article 19 clarifies that the Convention does not preempt any internal laws of its signatories that permit service from abroad via methods not otherwise allowed by the Convention.

         At issue in this case is Article 10 of the Convention, the English text of which reads as follows:

"Provided the State of destination does not object, the present Convention shall not ...

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