The Fifth Circuit and the Texas Supreme Court recently reaffirmed the high bar that must be met to find that the plain language of a statute violates the absurdity doctrine.
Under the absurdity doctrine a court will construe a statute by applying the plain meaning of the words used unless it would lead to absurd or nonsensical results that the legislature could not possibly have intended. See, e.g., El Paso Educ. Initiative, Inc. v. Amex Props., LLC, 63 Tex. Sup. Ct. J. 1166, 2020 Tex. LEXIS 436, at *14 (May 22, 2020), citing Cadena Comercial USA Corp. v. Tex. Alcoholic Beverage Comm’n, 518 S.W.3d 318, 325 (Tex. 2017). While the rule is frequently cited, one is hard pressed to find cases where a court has held the doctrine applicable.
In City of Forth Worth v. Rylie, 63 Tex. Sup. Ct. J. 1036, 2020 Tex. LEXIS 395, at *15 (May 8, 2020), the Texas Supreme Court was asked to untangle “a cobweb of issues” to decide whether a state statute regulating coin-operated machines preempts a Fort Worth ordinance regulating eight-liners. Eight-liners are video slot machines that pay out in coupons that can be exchanged for a prize or right to replay on a different machine. The machine operators argued that the city’s interpretation of the statute led to an absurd result. The Texas Supreme Court found their argument did not satisfy the doctrine. “We will not construe a statute’s language to produce ‘patently nonsensical results,’ but this absurdity bar ‘is high, and should be,’ because mere oddity does not equal absurdity.” Id. at *15, citing Combs v. Health Care Servs Corp., 401 S.W.3d 623, 630 (Tex. 2013).
The Fifth Circuit recently interpreted 28 U.S.C. Section 1441(b)(2) to decide whether the statute allows a non-forum defendant to execute a “snap removal” of a state case to federal court before other defendants, who are residents of the forum and would preclude removal, are served. The appellant accepted that the statute’s plain language allows snap removal, but argued that such a result is absurd and defeats Congress’s intent. The circuit court disagreed, holding that for the absurdity doctrine to apply the “result must be preposterous” and one that “no reasonable person could intend.” Texas Brine Co.. v. Am. Arbitration Ass’n, 955 F.3d 482, 486 (5th Cir. 2020), citing Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 237 (2012).
The Fifth Circuit’s holding follows in a long line of federal cases. See, e.g., Crooks v. Harrelson, 282 U.S. 55, 60 (1930) (“[T]o justify a departure from the letter of the law upon th[e] ground [of absurdity], the absurdity must be so gross as to shock the general moral or common sense.”); United States v. Dison, 573 F.3d 204, 210 n.28 (5th Cir. 2009).
The bottom line for a practitioner is to realize that courts do not favor the absurdity doctrine and will rarely hold that it overrides the words chosen by the legislature.