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How Personal Jurisdiction Determines Where You Can Be Sued

Understanding the legal process of where you can legally be sued involves learning about the concept of personal jurisdiction. Personal jurisdiction determines the court's authority over a person or entities involved in a court case. Along with subject matter jurisdiction, personal jurisdiction confirms that courts hear cases in a proper forum, ensuring adherence to the protections of the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution.

This article provides a comprehensive overview of personal jurisdiction and how it determines where you can be sued.

Personal and Subject Matter Jurisdiction

Courts in the United States must have two kinds of jurisdiction to hear a case: personal jurisdiction and subject matter jurisdiction. Subject matter jurisdiction is the court's authority to hear a certain type of claim. Meanwhile, personal jurisdiction refers to the court's authority over the person or entity who is a party to the case.

How To Determine Personal Jurisdiction

The following are the critical criteria for how the court asserts personal jurisdiction. This criterion ensures that plaintiffs sue defendants in the proper forum based on their connections or activities in that state.

  • Presence: Being served with a copy of the summons and complaint while present in the forum state is enough to give a court specific jurisdiction over the person served in that state. That means that even if you were only passing through the state for a few minutes if the other party properly served the summons, they can sue you.
  • Domicile or Principal Place of Business: Domicile or residence in a state is enough to give courts general jurisdiction over you. This also applies to wherever you establish your principal place of business. In practice, this means that even if the incident occurred in another state or country, a party can file a case against you in the state where you established residency or maintained a place of business.
  • Consent: You can also consent to a court having personal jurisdiction over you. Consent comes in two primary forms: express and implied. You give express consent by appearing before the court and submitting yourself to its authority. This means that even if a court otherwise didn't have power over you, you can grant the court that power by showing up. Consent can also be implied, and one of the most common forms of implied consent is driving on that state's roads. Courts consider you to have given implied consent to the laws regulating roads. Thus, a court has personal jurisdiction over you if you have a car accident on the road in that state.
  • Minimum Contacts: A court can also have personal jurisdiction over you if you maintain sufficient contact with the state where a court resides. Below is the primary test courts use to determine whether you've established enough minimum contacts with a state.

What Are the Three Types of Personal Jurisdiction

To understand how courts determine their authority over persons or property involved in a legal dispute, it is crucial to learn about the three types of personal jurisdiction:

  • In Personam
  • In Rem
  • Quasi In Rem

In Personam Jurisdiction

In personam jurisdiction allows the court to exercise authority over a person or entity based on their connections with the state or the forum. It often requires the defendant to have sufficient minimum contacts, ties, or interaction with the state that comprises that court's jurisdiction. This contact with the state should be enough that the person could reasonably foresee being sued there.

Establishing In Personam Jurisdiction

The Supreme Court set forth a basic test to determine whether a person has established minimum contact with that state. The following are some of the notable case laws:

  • Continuous, Systematic Contacts and Related Lawsuits: Jurisdiction is permissible when the defendant engages in continuous and systematic activity in the forum, and the cause of action relates to that activity. Helicopteros Nacionales de Colombia, S.A. v. Hall, 466 U.S. 408 (1984)
  • Continuous, Systematic Contacts and Unrelated Lawsuits: A court may still assert personal jurisdiction over a defendant out of state. This is possible if the defendant has certain minimum contacts in the state so that filing a suit against them does not go against fair play and substantial justice. This rule applies even if the cause of action of the suit is not related to those activities that the defendant does in that state. Goodyear Dunlop Tires Operations, S.A. v. Brown, 564 U.S. 915 (2011)
  • Sporadic or Casual Activity and Unrelated Lawsuits: If a defendant's activity is only sporadic or casual. Then, a court does not have personal jurisdiction over a cause of action unrelated to that sporadic activity. International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310 (1945)
  • Sporadic or Casual Activity and Related Lawsuits: If a defendant's activities in the state are sporadic or there are only minimum contacts, but the activity directly relates to the lawsuit, a court may also assert its jurisdiction. In Burger King Corp. v. Rudzewicz, 471 U.S. 462 (1985), the Court examined whether a contract is enough to constitute a "contact" for asserting personal jurisdiction. The Court rejected that a contract alone is enough to establish minimum contacts for jurisdiction purposes. However, mechanical tests were also discouraged when assessing this issue. Here, the Court emphasized that it is crucial to consider the nature of the tract. This includes future consequences, prior negotiations, and the actual course of dealing with the parties.

In Rem Jurisdiction

In rem jurisdiction, the court can exercise jurisdiction over any real or personal property within its territory. These cases often involve the rights and status of the property itself. An example is cases involving disputes over the title or ownership of a property.

In rem, actions are binding against everyone, even those not parties to the action. This means the court decision applies to people present or not in the lawsuit. For instance, an action to quiet title is a pure in rem action. The court bars everyone from challenging the owner's title to the property.

Quasi In Rem Jurisdiction

Like a case in rem, quasi in rem involves a court asserting authority over real or personal property within its jurisdiction. However, unlike in rem, quasi in rem is only binding against the parties to the lawsuit. A court can hear quasi in rem actions if the property is within its jurisdiction, even if it lacks in personam jurisdiction over the defendant.

For example, a plaintiff entered a contract with a defendant to buy a real property. The defendant is a resident of Connecticut, and the real property subject to the agreement is located in New York. Then, the defendant committed a breach of contract. The plaintiff sued the defendant for specific performance in a state court in New York.

In this case, the Court acknowledged that the civil procedure does not bring the person of the nonresident defendant in the state court's jurisdiction. However, it empowered the state court in New York to order a specific performance.

Long Arm Jurisdiction

A long-arm statute enables the court to establish personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant. The court may establish long-arm jurisdiction if there is a minimum contact between the defendant and the state.

In a landmark case, International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310 (1945), the Supreme Court established the rule for meeting the minimum contact requirements. It stated that the defendant should engage in continuous and systematic activity within the state and that the cause of action should arise from such systematic and continuous activity.

In another case, Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court, 480 U.S. 102 (1987), the Supreme Court clarified that the minimum contact test is not always enough to assert jurisdiction. It stressed that the Court should consider various factors before exercising jurisdiction.

This includes the state's interest in hearing the case, the interest of the plaintiff in receiving relief in the home state, the burden over the defendant, and the efficiency of resolving the case in the state. These considerations ensure that the court reasonably and fairly exercises its jurisdiction.

Seek Legal Advice From an Attorney

The complex landscape of civil procedure and state laws can be overwhelming. This is especially true if you face legal actions across state lines. Learning when and where you can be sued is crucial to protect your rights effectively. Consulting with an attorney is helpful if you are dealing with matters related to personal jurisdiction.

An experienced attorney can provide helpful legal advice regarding:

  • Navigating the minimum contact requirements, you should establish for the court to assert jurisdiction over your case.
  • Assess the implications of a state suing you and the possibility of transferring or dismissing the case for lack of jurisdiction.
  • Understand and challenge the grounds of personal jurisdiction in your case.

They can also offer you tailored advice for your specific situation. Do not hesitate to seek legal advice. Contact a litigation and appeals attorney for expert assistance.

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