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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Fundamental Principles of Personal Jurisdiction in the United States

Personal jurisdiction, in the law of civil procedure in the United States, refers to a court's jurisdiction over the parties to a law suit, as opposed to subject matter jurisdiction (jurisdiction over the determinations of law and fact to be made in the case or controversy). If a court does not have personal jurisdiction over a party, its rulings and decrees cannot be enforced as to that person. Exercise of personal jurisdiction by a court must both comport with Constitutional limitations, and be authorized by statute.

[hide] 1 Fundamental Principles of Personal Jurisdiction in the United States 1.1 Consent
1.2 Power
1.3 Notice

2 Historical Background: Territorial Jurisdiction 2.1 Difficulties in Applying Pennoyer Territorial Jurisdiction

3 Modern Constitutional Doctrine: International Shoe Doctrine and Shaffer v. Heitner
4 Statutory Authorization
5 Relationship to venue
6 Notes
7 See also
8 External links

Fundamental Principles of Personal Jurisdiction in the United States

Three fundamentals of personal jurisdiction constrain the ability of courts in the United States to bind individuals or property to its decisions: consent, power, and notice.[1]


The United States legal system is an adversarial system. Civil suits are not initiated by third parties, but must be filed by the party who seeks initial redress. The filing of a complaint or prayer for relief is a voluntary action by the plaintiff, and as a necessity of this request, the plaintiff consents to be bound by the judgment of the court. The doctrine of consent is also extended to defendants who attend and litigate actions without challenging personal jurisdiction. Consent may also derive from a pre-litigation agreement by the parties, such as a forum selection clause in a contract (not to be confused with a choice of law clause). Doctrines such as claim preclusion prevent re-litigation of failed complaints in alternative forums.


Where a defendant challenges jurisdiction, courts may still exercise personal jurisdiction when they have independent power to do so.[citation needed] This power is founded in the inherent nature of state sovereignty over the affairs within its territory.


The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution preserve the due process rights of individuals. Due process requires that notice be given in a manner "reasonably calculated" to inform a party of the action affecting them. Originally, notice (and power) manifested more viscerally, where the defendant in a civil case could be seized and brought before the court under the writ of capias ad respondendum. Notice is inferred from consent, however when exercising power over an individual without consent, notice is most often effected by service of process.

Historical Background: Territorial Jurisdiction

Originally, jurisdiction over parties in the United States adhered to strict interpretation of the geographic bounds of each state's sovereign power. In Pennoyer v. Neff, the Supreme Court discussed that though each state ceded certain powers (e.g. foreign relations) to the Federal Government or to no entity at all (e.g. the powers that are eliminated by the protections of the bill of rights), the states retained all the other powers of sovereignty, including the exclusive power to regulate the affairs of individuals and property within its territory. [2] Necessarily following from this, one state's exercise of power could not infringe upon the sovereignty of another state.[3] Thus, Constitutional limitations applied to the validity of state court judgments.

Three types of jurisdiction developed, collectively termed territorial jurisdiction because of their reliance upon territorial control: in personam jurisdiction, in rem jurisdiction, and quasi in rem jurisdiction. Some sources refer to all three types of territorial jurisdiction as personal jurisdiction, since most actions against property (in rem jurisdiction) bear, in the end, upon the rights and obligations of persons.[4] Others continue to recognize the traditional distinction between personal jurisdiction and jurisdiction over property, even after Shaffer v. Heitner (discussed below). [5]

In personam jurisdiction referred to jurisdiction over a particular person (or entity, such as a company). In personam jurisdiction, if held by a state court, permitted that court to rule upon any case over which it otherwise held jurisdiction. Under territorial jurisdiction, pure in personam jurisdiction could only be established by serving notice upon the individual while that individual was within the territory of the state.[6]

In rem jurisdiction referred to jurisdiction over a particular piece of property, most commonly real estate or land. Certain cases, notably government suits for unpaid property taxes, proceed not against an individual but against their property directly. Under territorial jurisdiction, in rem jurisdiction could be exercised by the courts of a state by seizing the property in question. Since an actual tract of land could not literally be brought into a courtroom as a person could, this was effected by giving notice upon the real property itself. In rem jurisdiction was thus supported by the assumption that the owner of that property, having a concrete economic interest in the property, had a duty to look after the affairs of their property, and would be notified of the pending case by such seizure. In rem jurisdiction was limited to deciding issues regarding the specific property in question.

Quasi in rem jurisdiction involved the seizure of property held by the individual against whom the suit was brought, and attachment of that property to the case in question. This form of territorial jurisdiction developed from the rationale of in rem jurisdiction, namely that seizure of the property was reasonably calculated to inform an individual of the proceedings against them.

Once a valid judgment was obtained against an individual, however, the plaintiff could pursue recovery against the assets of the defendant regardless of their location, as other states were obligated by the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the Constitution to recognize such a judgment (i.e. had ceded their power to refuse comity to fellow states of the Union). Violations by a rogue state could be checked via collateral attack: when a plaintiff sought recovery against a defendant's assets in another state, that state could refuse judgment on the grounds that the original judgment was invalid.

Difficulties in Applying Pennoyer Territorial Jurisdiction

Following Pennoyer, extreme applications of territorial jurisdiction revealed imperfections in the doctrine, and societal changes began to present new problems as the United States' national economy became more integrated by increasingly efficient multi-state transportation technology and business practices.

While determining the physical location of an individual for the purposes of in personam jurisdiction was easy enough, applying the same principle to non-physical entities became difficult. Courts were presented with the question of where a company was present and amenable to service for the purpose of in personam jurisdiction over the company.

Extension of quasi in rem jurisdiction led to extreme results that threatened the justification for the jurisdiction. Bearing in mind that territorial jurisdiction existed in a pre-industrial society where transportation across the country was difficult, long, and potentially treacherous, and consider the hypothetical wherein A owes B money, and B owes C, a resident of New York, money. C seeks to recover on B's debt to C, however cannot do so because B avoids C by travelling to California. A, however, happens to travel through New York. C serves notice upon A, and attaches A's debt to B (considered to be property within the state) to the proceeding. A can no more certainly provide notice to B in California than C could provide, and the transient and involuntary exposure of B to being haled into court in New York by this attachment seems to erode the original rationale of quasi in rem jurisdiction.

Modern Constitutional Doctrine: International Shoe Doctrine and Shaffer v. Heitner

In the modern era, the reach of personal jurisdiction has been expanded by judicial re-interpretation and legislative enactments. Under the new and current doctrine, a state court may only exert personal jurisdiction over an individual or entity with "sufficient minimal contacts" with the forum state such that the particular suit "does not offend 'traditional notions of fair play and justice.'"[7] The "minimum contacts" must be purposefully directed towards the state by the defendant.[8] This jurisdiction was initially limited to the particulars of the Shoe holding, that is to jurisdictional inquiries regarding companies,[9] but was soon extended to apply to all questions of personal jurisdiction. [10] When an individual, or entity, has no "minimum contacts" with a forum State, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits that State from acting against that individual, or entity. The lack of "minimum contacts" with the owner of property also constitutionally prohibits action against that property (in rem jurisdiction) even when the property is located within the forum state.[11]

What constitutes sufficient "minimum contacts" has been delineated in numerous cases which followed the International Shoe decision. For example, in Hanson v. Denckla, the Court proclaimed the "unilateral activity of those who claim some relationship with a nonresident cannot satisfy the requirement of contact with the forum State. The application of that rule will vary with the nature and quality of the defendant's activity, but it is essential in each case that there be some act by which the defendant purposefully avails itself of the privilege or conducting activities within the forum State, thus invoking the benefits and protection of its laws."[12]

The additional requirement of "'purposeful availment' ensures that a defendant will not be hauled into a jurisdiction solely as a result of 'random, 'fortuitous,' or 'attenuated' contacts, [citations omitted] or of the unilateral activity of another party or a third person [citation omitted][13] Jurisdiction may, however, be exercised, under some circumstances, even though the defendant never physically entered the forum State. [14]

Statutory Authorization

While the Pennoyer and later Shoe Doctrines limit the maximum power of a sovereign state, courts must also have authorization to exercise the state's power; an individual state may choose to not grant its courts the full power that the state is Constitutionally permitted to exercise.[15] Similarly, the jurisdiction of Federal courts (other than the Supreme Court) are statutorily-defined. Thus, a particular exercise of personal jurisdiction must not only be permitted by Constitutional doctrine, but be statutorily authorized as well. Under Pennoyer, personal jurisdiction was authorized by statutes authorizing service of process,[16] but these methods of service often lacked because they required such service to be effected by officers of the state, such as sheriffs – an untenable method for defendants located outside of the state but still subject to jurisdiction due to their contacts with the state. Subsequent to the development of the Shoe Doctrine, states have enacted so-called long-arm statutes, by which courts in a state can serve process and thus exercise jurisdiction over a party located outside the state - subject, still, to the Constitutional limitations of the Shoe Doctrine.

Relationship to venue

Venue and personal jurisdiction are closely related for practical purposes. A lawyer should usually perform joint analysis of personal jurisdiction and venue issues. Personal jurisdiction is largely a constitutional requirement, though also shaped by state long-arm statutes and Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, while venue is purely statutory.

It is possible for either venue or personal jurisdiction to preclude a court from hearing a case. Consider these examples:
Personal jurisdiction is the limiting factor. In World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson,[17] the plaintiffs sued, in an Oklahoma state court, an automobile dealership based in New York for damages from an explosion that occurred on June 11, 1977, as the plaintiffs drove the car through Oklahoma. Had the plaintiffs sued in U.S. federal court sited in Oklahoma, personal jurisdiction against the dealership would have been unavailable, as the dealership did not have minimum contacts with the forum state. Venue, however, would have been proper under 28 U.S.C. § 1391, the general federal venue statute, because Oklahoma was a state in which a substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to the claim occurred. However, the United States Supreme Court found that the defendants (World-Wide Volkswagen Corp.) did not have the minimum contacts with Oklahoma necessary to create personal jurisdiction there. [World-Wide Volkswagen was one of the "defendants"; the case cited is WWV Corp (original defendant) v. Woodson (the Oklahoma state judge) ]
Venue is the limiting factor. Suppose Dale resides in California. Peter from Nevada wants to sue Dale for battery which Dale committed against Peter in California. Peter knows Dale is going to a week-long conference in South Carolina. Peter realizes that Dale would settle a suit that would take place in South Carolina, because it would be too expensive to defend. So, during Dale's trip, Peter serves Dale with process for an action filed in South Carolina federal court. The federal court has personal jurisdiction, based on Dale's presence in South Carolina at the time process was served (transient service of process). However, venue is improper under § 1391.


1.^ Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714; Yeazell, Stephen C. (2008) (in English). Civil Procedure (7th ed.). p.71: Aspen Publishers. ISBN 978-07355-6925-6.
2.^ Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714, 722.
3.^ Pennoyer, 95 U.S. at 722.
4.^ See e.g., Friedenthal, Kane & Miller, Civil Procedure, ¶ 3.14 at 150 (Minneapolis: West Publishing 1985) (quoting Shaffer v. Heitner, 433 U.S. 186, 207, fn. 22 (1977)).
5.^ See e.g., Blacks Law Dictionary, 6th ed., 1144 (Minneapolis: West Publishing 1990).
6.^ 95 U.S. at 724.
7.^ International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 316.
8.^ 326 U.S. 310, 319 (1945).
9.^ See 326 U.S. 310 (1945).
10.^ See Shaffer v. Heitner, 433 U.S. 186 (1977).
11.^ See Shaffer v. Heitner, 433 U.S. 186, 212 (1977).
12.^ 357 U.S. 235, 253 (1958).
13.^ .See Burger King v. Rudzewicz.471 U.S. 462, 475 (1985).
14.^ See e.g., Quill v. Heitkamp, 504 U.S. 298 (1992) (finding that Quill Corp. purposefully directed its activities at the State's residents and the tax imposed was related to the benefits it received in doing so).
15.^ Yeazell, Stephen C. (2008) (in English). Civil Procedure (7th ed.). p.154: Aspen Publishers. ISBN 978-07355-6925-6.
16.^ Id.
17.^ 444 U.S. 286 (1980).

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