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3.2 The Problem of Jurisdiction

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain the concept of subject matter jurisdiction and distinguish it from personal jurisdiction.
  2. Understand how and where the US Constitution provides a set of instructions as to what federal courts are empowered by law to do.
  3. Know which kinds of cases must be heard in federal courts only.
  4. Explain diversity of citizenship jurisdiction and be able to decide whether a case is eligible for diversity jurisdiction in the federal courts.

Jurisdiction is an essential concept in understanding courts and the legal system. Jurisdiction is a combination of two Latin words: juris (law) and diction (to speak). Which court has the power “to speak the law” is the basic question of jurisdiction.

There are two questions about jurisdiction in each case that must be answered before a judge will hear a case: the question of subject matter jurisdictionLegal authority to hear and decide a case or controversy. and the question of personal jurisdiction. We will consider the question of subject matter jurisdiction first, because judges do; if they determine, on the basis of the initial documents in the case (the “pleadings”), that they have no power to hear and decide that kind of case, they will dismiss it.

The Federal-State Balance: Federalism

State courts have their origins in colonial era courts. After the American Revolution, state courts functioned (with some differences) much like they did in colonial times. The big difference after 1789 was that state courts coexisted with federal courts. FederalismThe idea, originating with the Constitution’s Founding Fathers, that the United States legal and political system would be one of governance shared between the states and the federal government. was the system devised by the nation’s founders in which power is shared between states and the federal government. This sharing requires a division of labor between the states and the federal government. It is Article III of the US Constitution that spells out the respective spheres of authority (jurisdiction) between state and federal courts.

Take a close look at Article III of the Constitution. (You can find a printable copy of the Constitution at http://www.findlaw.com.) Article III makes clear that federal courts are courts of limited power or jurisdiction. Notice that the only kinds of cases federal courts are authorized to deal with have strong federal connections. For example, federal courts have jurisdiction when a federal law is being used by the plaintiff or prosecutor (a “federal question” case) or the case arises “in admiralty” (meaning that the problem arose not on land but on sea, beyond the territorial jurisdiction of any state, or in navigable waters within the United States). Implied in this list is the clear notion that states would continue to have their own laws, interpreted by their own courts, and that federal courts were needed only where the issues raised by the parties had a clear federal connection. The exception to this is diversity jurisdiction, discussed later.

The Constitution was constructed with the idea that state courts would continue to deal with basic kinds of claims such as tort, contract, or property claims. Since states sanction marriages and divorce, state courts would deal with “domestic” (family) issues. Since states deal with birth and death records, it stands to reason that paternity suits, probate disputes, and the like usually wind up in state courts. You wouldn’t go to the federal building or courthouse to get a marriage license, ask for a divorce, or probate a will: these matters have traditionally been dealt with by the states (and the thirteen original colonies before them). Matters that historically get raised and settled in state court under state law include not only domestic and probate matters but also law relating to corporations, partnerships, agency, contracts, property, torts, and commercial dealings generally. You cannot get married or divorced in federal court, because federal courts have no jurisdiction over matters that are historically (and are still) exclusively within the domain of state law.

In terms of subject matter jurisdiction, then, state courts will typically deal with the kinds of disputes just cited. Thus if you are Michigan resident and have an auto accident in Toledo with an Ohio resident and you each blame each other for the accident, the state courts would ordinarily resolve the matter if the dispute cannot otherwise be settled. Why state courts? Because when you blame one another and allege that it’s the other person’s fault, you have the beginnings of a tort case, with negligence as a primary element of the claim, and state courts have routinely dealt with this kind of claim, from British colonial times through Independence and to the present. (See also Chapter 7 "Introduction to Tort Law" of this text.) People have had a need to resolve this kind of dispute long before our federal courts were created, and you can tell from Article III that the founders did not specify that tort or negligence claims should be handled by the federal courts. Again, federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, limited to the kinds of cases specified in Article III. If the case before the federal court does not fall within one of those categories, the federal court cannot constitutionally hear the case because it does not have subject matter jurisdiction.

Always remember: a court must have subject matter jurisdiction to hear and decide a case. Without it, a court cannot address the merits of the controversy or even take the next jurisdictional step of figuring out which of the defendants can be sued in that court. The question of which defendants are appropriately before the court is a question of personal jurisdictionEach court must have subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction over at least one named defendant. If the defendant is a nonresident where the lawsuit is filed, there may be constitutional issues of personal jurisdiction arising from the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. One state should not claim personal jurisdiction over a nonresident unless various tests are met, such as minimum contacts and the “purposeful availment” test..

Because there are two court systems, it is important for a plaintiff to file in the right court to begin with. The right court is the one that has subject matter jurisdiction over the case—that is, the power to hear and decide the kind of case that is filed. Not only is it a waste of time to file in the wrong court system and be dismissed, but if the dismissal comes after the filing period imposed by the applicable statute of limitationsEach state and the federal government has legislated certain time periods beyond which plaintiffs are not allowed to file civil lawsuits. (There are some statutes of limitations for some kinds of criminal offenses, as well.), it will be too late to refile in the correct court system. Such cases will be routinely dismissed, regardless of how deserving the plaintiff might be in his quest for justice. (The plaintiff’s only remedy at that point would be to sue his lawyer for negligence for failing to mind the clock and get to the right court in time!)

Exclusive Jurisdiction in Federal Courts

With two court systems, a plaintiff (or the plaintiff’s attorney, most likely) must decide whether to file a case in the state court system or the federal court system. Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over certain kinds of cases. The reason for this comes directly from the Constitution. Article III of the US Constitution provides the following:

The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority; to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls; to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction; to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party; to Controversies between two or more States; between a State and Citizens of another State; between Citizens of different States; between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.

By excluding diversity cases, we can assemble a list of the kinds of cases that can only be heard in federal courts. The list looks like this:

  1. Suits between states. Cases in which two or more states are a party.
  2. Cases involving ambassadors and other high-ranking public figures. Cases arising between foreign ambassadors and other high-ranking public officials.
  3. Federal crimes. Crimes defined by or mentioned in the US Constitution or those defined or punished by federal statute. Such crimes include treason against the United States, piracy, counterfeiting, crimes against the law of nations, and crimes relating to the federal government’s authority to regulate interstate commerce. However, most crimes are state matters.
  4. Bankruptcy. The statutory procedure, usually triggered by insolvency, by which a person is relieved of most debts and undergoes a judicially supervised reorganization or liquidation for the benefit of the person’s creditors.
  5. Patent, copyright, and trademark cases

    1. Patent. The exclusive right to make, use, or sell an invention for a specified period (usually seventeen years), granted by the federal government to the inventor if the device or process is novel, useful, and nonobvious.
    2. Copyright. The body of law relating to a property right in an original work of authorship (such as a literary, musical, artistic, photographic, or film work) fixed in any tangible medium of expression, giving the holder the exclusive right to reproduce, adapt, distribute, perform, and display the work.
    3. Trademark. A word, phrase, logo, or other graphic symbol used by a manufacturer or seller to distinguish its product or products from those of others.
  6. Admiralty. The system of laws that has grown out of the practice of admiralty courts: courts that exercise jurisdiction over all maritime contracts, torts, injuries, and offenses.
  7. Antitrust. Federal laws designed to protect trade and commerce from restraining monopolies, price fixing, and price discrimination.
  8. Securities and banking regulation. The body of law protecting the public by regulating the registration, offering, and trading of securities and the regulation of banking practices.
  9. Other cases specified by federal statute. Any other cases specified by a federal statute where Congress declares that federal courts will have exclusive jurisdiction.

Concurrent Jurisdiction

When a plaintiff takes a case to state court, it will be because state courts typically hear that kind of case (i.e., there is subject matter jurisdiction). If the plaintiff’s main cause of action comes from a certain state’s constitution, statutes, or court decisions, the state courts have subject matter jurisdiction over the case. If the plaintiff’s main cause of action is based on federal law (e.g., Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), the federal courts have subject matter jurisdiction over the case. But federal courts will also have subject matter jurisdiction over certain cases that have only a state-based cause of action; those cases are ones in which the plaintiff(s) and the defendant(s) are from different states and the amount in controversy is more than $75,000. State courts can have subject matter jurisdiction over certain cases that have only a federal-based cause of action. The Supreme Court has now made clear that state courts have concurrent jurisdictionWhen both state and federal courts have subject matter jurisdiction of a case, there is concurrent jurisdiction. Only one court will hear the case between the parties and will hear all causes of action, whether based on state or federal law. of any federal cause of action unless Congress has given exclusive jurisdiction to federal courts.

In short, a case with a federal question can be often be heard in either state or federal court, and a case that has parties with a diversity of citizenship can be heard in state courts or in federal courts where the tests of complete diversity and amount in controversy are met. (See Note 3.18 "Summary of Rules on Subject Matter Jurisdiction".)

Whether a case will be heard in a state court or moved to a federal court will depend on the parties. If a plaintiff files a case in state trial court where concurrent jurisdiction applies, a defendant may (or may not) ask that the case be removed to federal district court.

Summary of Rules on Subject Matter Jurisdiction

  1. A court must always have subject matter jurisdiction, and personal jurisdiction over at least one defendant, to hear and decide a case.
  2. A state court will have subject matter jurisdiction over any case that is not required to be brought in a federal court.

    Some cases can only be brought in federal court, such as bankruptcy cases, cases involving federal crimes, patent cases, and Internal Revenue Service tax court claims. The list of cases for exclusive federal jurisdiction is fairly short. That means that almost any state court will have subject matter jurisdiction over almost any kind of case. If it’s a case based on state law, a state court will always have subject matter jurisdiction.

  3. A federal court will have subject matter jurisdiction over any case that is either based on a federal law (statute, case, or US Constitution)

    OR

    A federal court will have subject matter jurisdiction over any case based on state law where the parties are (1) from different states and (2) the amount in controversy is at least $75,000.

    (1) The different states requirement means that no plaintiff can have permanent residence in a state where any defendant has permanent residence—there must be complete diversity of citizenship as between all plaintiffs and defendants.

    (2) The amount in controversy requirement means that a good-faith estimate of the amount the plaintiff may recover is at least $75,000.

    NOTE: For purposes of permanent residence, a corporation is considered a resident where it is incorporated AND where it has a principal place of business.

  4. In diversity cases, the following rules apply.

    (1) Federal civil procedure rules apply to how the case is conducted before and during trial and any appeals, but

    (2) State law will be used as the basis for a determination of legal rights and responsibilities.

    (a) This “choice of law” process is interesting but complicated. Basically, each state has its own set of judicial decisions that resolve conflict of laws. For example, just because A sues B in a Texas court, the Texas court will not necessarily apply Texas law. Anna and Bobby collide and suffer serious physical injuries while driving their cars in Roswell, New Mexico. Both live in Austin, and Bobby files a lawsuit in Austin. The court there could hear it (having subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction over Bobby) but would apply New Mexico law, which governs motor vehicle laws and accidents in New Mexico. Why would the Texas judge do that?

    (b) The Texas judge knows that which state’s law is chosen to apply to the case can make a decisive difference in the case, as different states have different substantive law standards. For example, in a breach of contract case, one state’s version of the Uniform Commercial Code may be different from another’s, and which one the court decides to apply is often exceedingly good for one side and dismal for the other. In Anna v. Bobby, if Texas has one kind of comparative negligence statute and New Mexico has a different kind of comparative negligence statute, who wins or loses, or how much is awarded, could well depend on which law applies. Because both were under the jurisdiction of New Mexico’s laws at the time, it makes sense to apply New Mexico law.

    (3) Why do some nonresident defendants prefer to be in federal court?

    (a) In the state court, the judge is elected, and the jury may be familiar with or sympathetic to the “local” plaintiff.

    (b) The federal court provides a more neutral forum, with an appointed, life-tenured judge and a wider pool of potential jurors (drawn from a wider geographical area).

    (4) If a defendant does not want to be in state court and there is diversity, what is to be done?

    (a) Make a motion for removal to the federal court.

    (b) The federal court will not want to add to its caseload, or docket, but must take the case unless there is not complete diversity of citizenship or the amount in controversy is less than $75,000.

To better understand subject matter jurisdiction in action, let’s take an example. Wile E. Coyote wants a federal judge to hear his products-liability action against Acme, Inc., even though the action is based on state law. Mr. Coyote’s attorney wants to “make a federal case” out of it, thinking that the jurors in the federal district court’s jury pool will understand the case better and be more likely to deliver a “high value” verdict for Mr. Coyote. Mr. Coyote resides in Arizona, and Acme is incorporated in the state of Delaware and has its principal place of business in Chicago, Illinois. The federal court in Arizona can hear and decide Mr. Coyote’s case (i.e., it has subject matter jurisdiction over the case) because of diversity of citizenship. If Mr. Coyote was injured by one of Acme’s defective products while chasing a roadrunner in Arizona, the federal district court judge would hear his action—using federal procedural law—and decide the case based on the substantive law of Arizona on product liability.

But now change the facts only slightly: Acme is incorporated in Delaware but has its principal place of business in Phoenix, Arizona. Unless Mr. Coyote has a federal law he is using as a basis for his claims against Acme, his attempt to get a federal court to hear and decide the case will fail. It will fail because there is not complete diversity of citizenship between the plaintiff and the defendant.

Robinson v. Audi

Now consider Mr. and Mrs. Robinson and their products-liability claim against Seaway Volkswagen and the other three defendants. There is no federal products-liability law that could be used as a cause of action. They are most likely suing the defendants using products-liability law based on common-law negligence or common-law strict liability law, as found in state court cases. They were not yet Arizona residents at the time of the accident, and their accident does not establish them as Oklahoma residents, either. They bought the vehicle in New York from a New York–based retailer. None of the other defendants is from Oklahoma.

They file in an Oklahoma state court, but how will they (their attorney or the court) know if the state court has subject matter jurisdiction? Unless the case is required to be in a federal court (i.e., unless the federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over this kind of case), any state court system will have subject matter jurisdiction, including Oklahoma’s state court system. But if their claim is for a significant amount of money, they cannot file in small claims court, probate court, or any court in Oklahoma that does not have statutory jurisdiction over their claim. They will need to file in a court of general jurisdiction. In short, even filing in the right court system (state versus federal), the plaintiff must be careful to find the court that has subject matter jurisdiction.

If they wish to go to federal court, can they? There is no federal question presented here (the claim is based on state common law), and the United States is not a party, so the only basis for federal court jurisdiction would be diversity jurisdiction. If enough time has elapsed since the accident and they have established themselves as Arizona residents, they could sue in federal court in Oklahoma (or elsewhere), but only if none of the defendants—the retailer, the regional Volkswagen company, Volkswagen of North America, or Audi (in Germany) are incorporated in or have a principal place of business in Arizona. The federal judge would decide the case using federal civil procedure but would have to make the appropriate choice of state law. In this case, the choice of conflicting laws would most likely be Oklahoma, where the accident happened, or New York, where the defective product was sold.

Table 3.1 Sample Conflict-of-Law Principles

Substantive Law Issue Law to be Applied
Liability for injury caused by tortious conduct State in which the injury was inflicted
Real property State where the property is located
Personal Property: inheritance Domicile of deceased (not location of property)
Contract: validity State in which contract was made
Contract: breach State in which contract was to be performed*
*Or, in many states, the state with the most significant contacts with the contractual activities
Note: Choice-of-law clauses in a contract will ordinarily be honored by judges in state and federal courts.

Legal Procedure, Including Due Process and Personal Jurisdiction

In this section, we consider how lawsuits are begun and how the court knows that it has both subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction over at least one of the named defendants.

The courts are not the only institutions that can resolve disputes. In Section 3.8 "Alternative Means of Resolving Disputes", we will discuss other dispute-resolution forums, such as arbitration and mediation. For now, let us consider how courts make decisions in civil disputes. Judicial decision making in the context of litigation (civil lawsuits) is a distinctive form of dispute resolution.

First, to get the attention of a court, the plaintiff must make a claim based on existing laws. Second, courts do not reach out for cases. Cases are brought to them, usually when an attorney files a case with the right court in the right way, following the various laws that govern all civil procedures in a state or in the federal system. (Most US states’ procedural laws are similar to the federal procedural code.)

Once at the court, the case will proceed through various motions (motions to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, for example, or insufficient service of process), the proofs (submission of evidence), and the arguments (debate about the meaning of the evidence and the law) of contesting parties.

This is at the heart of the adversary system, in which those who oppose each other may attack the other’s case through proofs and cross-examination. Every person in the United States who wishes to take a case to court is entitled to hire a lawyer. The lawyer works for his client, not the court, and serves him as an advocate, or supporter. The client’s goal is to persuade the court of the accuracy and justness of his position. The lawyer’s duty is to shape the evidence and the argument—the line of reasoning about the evidence—to advance his client’s cause and persuade the court of its rightness. The lawyer for the opposing party will be doing the same thing, of course, for her client. The judge (or, if one is sitting, the jury) must sort out the facts and reach a decision from this cross-fire of evidence and argument.

The method of adjudication—the act of making an order or judgment—has several important features. First, it focuses the conflicting issues. Other, secondary concerns are minimized or excluded altogether. Relevance is a key concept in any trial. The judge is required to decide the questions presented at the trial, not to talk about related matters. Second, adjudication requires that the judge’s decision be reasoned, and that is why judges write opinions explaining their decisions (an opinion may be omitted when the verdict comes from a jury). Third, the judge’s decision must not only be reasoned but also be responsive to the case presented: the judge is not free to say that the case is unimportant and that he therefore will ignore it. Unlike other branches of government that are free to ignore problems pressing upon them, judges must decide cases. (For example, a legislature need not enact a law, no matter how many people petition it to do so.) Fourth, the court must respond in a certain way. The judge must pay attention to the parties’ arguments and his decision must result from their proofs and arguments. Evidence that is not presented and legal arguments that are not made cannot be the basis for what the judge decides. Also, judges are bound by standards of weighing evidence: the burden of proof in a civil case is generally a “preponderance of the evidence.”

In all cases, the plaintiff—the party making a claim and initiating the lawsuit (in a criminal case the plaintiff is the prosecution)—has the burden of proving his case. If he fails to prove it, the defendant—the party being sued or prosecuted—will win.

Criminal prosecutions carry the most rigorous burden of proof: the government must prove its case against the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. That is, even if it seems very likely that the defendant committed the crime, as long as there remains some reasonable doubt—perhaps he was not clearly identified as the culprit, perhaps he has an alibi that could be legitimate—the jury must vote to acquit rather than convict.

By contrast, the burden of proof in ordinary civil cases—those dealing with contracts, personal injuries, and most of the cases in this book—is a preponderance of the evidence, which means that the plaintiff’s evidence must outweigh whatever evidence the defendant can muster that casts doubts on the plaintiff’s claim. This is not merely a matter of counting the number of witnesses or of the length of time that they talk: the judge in a trial without a jury (a bench trial), or the jury where one is impaneled, must apply the preponderance of evidence test by determining which side has the greater weight of credible, relevant evidence.

Adjudication and the adversary system imply certain other characteristics of courts. Judges must be impartial; those with a personal interest in a matter must refuse to hear it. The ruling of a court, after all appeals are exhausted, is final. This principle is known as res judicata“The matter has been adjudicated.” The same case or controversy cannot be heard and concluded in one court and relitigated in another. The same parties may have different issues and disputes, but a final judgment in a court that has jurisdiction over the case or controversy forever settles the matter. (Latin for “the thing is decided”), and it means that the same parties may not take up the same dispute in another court at another time. Finally, a court must proceed according to a public set of formal procedural rules; a judge cannot make up the rules as he goes along. To these rules we now turn.

How a Case Proceeds

Complaint and Summons

Beginning a lawsuit is simple and is spelled out in the rules of procedure by which each court system operates. In the federal system, the plaintiff begins a lawsuit by filing a complaint—a document clearly explaining the grounds for suit—with the clerk of the court. The court’s agent (usually a sheriff, for state trial courts, or a US deputy marshal, in federal district courts) will then serve the defendant with the complaint and a summons. The summons is a court document stating the name of the plaintiff and his attorney and directing the defendant to respond to the complaint within a fixed time period.

The timing of the filing can be important. Almost every possible legal complaint is governed by a federal or state statute of limitations, which requires a lawsuit to be filed within a certain period of time. For example, in many states a lawsuit for injuries resulting from an automobile accident must be filed within two years of the accident or the plaintiff forfeits his right to proceed. As noted earlier, making a correct initial filing in a court that has subject matter jurisdiction is critical to avoiding statute of limitations problems.

Jurisdiction and Venue

The place of filing is equally important, and there are two issues regarding location. The first is subject matter jurisdiction, as already noted. A claim for breach of contract, in which the amount at stake is $1 million, cannot be brought in a local county court with jurisdiction to hear cases involving sums of up to only $1,000. Likewise, a claim for copyright violation cannot be brought in a state superior court, since federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over copyright cases.

The second consideration is venue—the proper geographic location of the court. For example, every county in a state might have a superior court, but the plaintiff is not free to pick any county. Again, a statute will spell out to which court the plaintiff must go (e.g., the county in which the plaintiff resides or the county in which the defendant resides or maintains an office).

Service of Process and Personal Jurisdiction

The defendant must be “served”—that is, must receive notice that he has been sued. Service can be done by physically presenting the defendant with a copy of the summons and complaint. But sometimes the defendant is difficult to find (or deliberately avoids the marshal or other process server). The rules spell out a variety of ways by which individuals and corporations can be served. These include using US Postal Service certified mail or serving someone already designated to receive service of process. A corporation or partnership, for example, is often required by state law to designate a “registered agent” for purposes of getting public notices or receiving a summons and complaint.

One of the most troublesome problems is service on an out-of-state defendant. The personal jurisdiction of a state court over persons is clear for those defendants found within the state. If the plaintiff claims that an out-of-state defendant injured him in some way, must the plaintiff go to the defendant’s home state to serve him? Unless the defendant had some significant contact with the plaintiff’s state, the plaintiff may indeed have to. For instance, suppose a traveler from Maine stopped at a roadside diner in Montana and ordered a slice of homemade pie that was tainted and caused him to be sick. The traveler may not simply return home and mail the diner a notice that he is suing it in a Maine court. But if out-of-state defendants have some contact with the plaintiff’s state of residence, there might be grounds to bring them within the jurisdiction of the plaintiff’s state courts. In Burger King v. Rudzewicz, Section 3.9 "Cases", the federal court in Florida had to consider whether it was constitutionally permissible to exercise personal jurisdiction over a Michigan franchisee.

Again, recall that even if a court has subject matter jurisdiction, it must also have personal jurisdiction over each defendant against whom an enforceable judgment can be made. Often this is not a problem; you might be suing a person who lives in your state or regularly does business in your state. Or a nonresident may answer your complaint without objecting to the court’s “in personam” (personal) jurisdiction. But many defendants who do not reside in the state where the lawsuit is filed would rather not be put to the inconvenience of contesting a lawsuit in a distant forum. Fairness—and the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment—dictates that nonresidents should not be required to defend lawsuits far from their home base, especially where there is little or no contact or connection between the nonresident and the state where a lawsuit is brought.

Summary of Rules on Personal Jurisdiction

  1. Once a court determines that it has subject matter jurisdiction, it must find at least one defendant over which it is “fair” (i.e., in accord with due process) to exercise personal jurisdiction.
  2. If a plaintiff sues five defendants and the court has personal jurisdiction over just one, the case can be heard, but the court cannot make a judgment against the other four.

    1. But if the plaintiff loses against defendant 1, he can go elsewhere (to another state or states) and sue defendants 2, 3, 4, or 5.
    2. The court’s decision in the first lawsuit (against defendant 1) does not determine the liability of the nonparticipating defendants.

    This involves the principle of res judicata, which means that you can’t bring the same action against the same person (or entity) twice. It’s like the civil side of double jeopardy. Res means “thing,” and judicata means “adjudicated.” Thus the “thing” has been “adjudicated” and should not be judged again. But, as to nonparticipating parties, it is not over. If you have a different case against the same defendant—one that arises out of a completely different situation—that case is not barred by res judicata.

  3. Service of process is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for getting personal jurisdiction over a particular defendant (see rule 4).

    1. In order to get a judgment in a civil action, the plaintiff must serve a copy of the complaint and a summons on the defendant.
    2. There are many ways to do this.

      • The process server personally serves a complaint on the defendant.
      • The process server leaves a copy of the summons and complaint at the residence of the defendant, in the hands of a competent person.
      • The process server sends the summons and complaint by certified mail, return receipt requested.
      • The process server, if all other means are not possible, notifies the defendant by publication in a newspaper having a minimum number of readers (as may be specified by law).
  4. In addition to successfully serving the defendant with process, a plaintiff must convince the court that exercising personal jurisdiction over the defendant is consistent with due process and any statutes in that state that prescribe the jurisdictional reach of that state (the so-called long-arm statutes). The Supreme Court has long recognized various bases for judging whether such process is fair.

    1. Consent. The defendant agrees to the court’s jurisdiction by coming to court, answering the complaint, and having the matter litigated there.
    2. Domicile. The defendant is a permanent resident of that state.
    3. Event. The defendant did something in that state, related to the lawsuit, that makes it fair for the state to say, “Come back and defend!”
    4. Service of process within the state will effectively provide personal jurisdiction over the nonresident.

Again, let’s consider Mrs. Robinson and her children in the Audi accident. She could file a lawsuit anywhere in the country. She could file a lawsuit in Arizona after she establishes residency there. But while the Arizona court would have subject matter jurisdiction over any products-liability claim (or any claim that was not required to be heard in a federal court), the Arizona court would face an issue of “in personam jurisdiction,” or personal jurisdiction: under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, each state must extend due process to citizens of all of the other states. Because fairness is essential to due process, the court must consider whether it is fair to require an out-of-state defendant to appear and defend against a lawsuit that could result in a judgment against that defendant.

Almost every state in the United States has a statute regarding personal jurisdiction, instructing judges when it is permissible to assert personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state resident. These are called long-arm statutes. But no state can reach out beyond the limits of what is constitutionally permissible under the Fourteenth Amendment, which binds the states with its proviso to guarantee the due process rights of the citizens of every state in the union. The “minimum contacts” test in Burger King v. Rudzewicz (Section 3.9 "Cases") tries to make the fairness mandate of the due process clause more specific. So do other tests articulated in the case (such as “does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice”). These tests are posed by the Supreme Court and heeded by all lower courts in order to honor the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process guarantees. These tests are in addition to any state long-arm statute’s instructions to courts regarding the assertion of personal jurisdiction over nonresidents.

Choice of Law and Choice of Forum Clauses

In a series of cases, the Supreme Court has made clear that it will honor contractual choices of parties in a lawsuit. Suppose the parties to a contract wind up in court arguing over the application of the contract’s terms. If the parties are from two different states, the judge may have difficulty determining which law to apply (see Table 3.1 "Sample Conflict-of-Law Principles"). But if the contract says that a particular state’s law will be applied if there is a dispute, then ordinarily the judge will apply that state’s law as a rule of decision in the case. For example, Kumar Patel (a Missouri resident) opens a brokerage account with Goldman, Sachs and Co., and the contractual agreement calls for “any disputes arising under this agreement” to be determined “according to the laws of the state of New York.” When Kumar claims in a Missouri court that his broker is “churning” his account, and, on the other hand, Goldman, Sachs claims that Kumar has failed to meet his margin call and owes $38,568.25 (plus interest and attorney’s fees), the judge in Missouri will apply New York law based on the contract between Kumar and Goldman, Sachs.

Ordinarily, a choice-of-law clause will be accompanied by a choice-of-forum clause. In a choice-of-forum clause, the parties in the contract specify which court they will go to in the event of a dispute arising under the terms of contract. For example, Harold (a resident of Virginia) rents a car from Alamo at the Denver International Airport. He does not look at the fine print on the contract. He also waives all collision and other insurance that Alamo offers at the time of his rental. While driving back from Telluride Bluegrass Festival, he has an accident in Idaho Springs, Colorado. His rented Nissan Altima is badly damaged. On returning to Virginia, he would like to settle up with Alamo, but his insurance company and Alamo cannot come to terms. He realizes, however, that he has agreed to hear the dispute with Alamo in a specific court in San Antonio, Texas. In the absence of fraud or bad faith, any court in the United States is likely to uphold the choice-of-form clause and require Harold (or his insurance company) to litigate in San Antonio, Texas.

Key Takeaway

There are two court systems in the United States. It is important to know which system—the state court system or the federal court system—has the power to hear and decide a particular case. Once that is established, the Constitution compels an inquiry to make sure that no court extends its reach unfairly to out-of-state residents. The question of personal jurisdiction is a question of fairness and due process to nonresidents.

Exercises

  1. The Constitution specifies that federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over admiralty claims. Mr. and Mrs. Shute have a claim against Carnival Cruise lines for the negligence of the cruise line. Mrs. Shute sustained injuries as a result of the company’s negligence. Mr. and Mrs. Shute live in the state of Washington. Can they bring their claim in state court? Must they bring their claim in federal court?
  2. Congress passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In Title VII, employers are required not to discriminate against employees on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin. In passing Title VII, Congress did not require plaintiffs to file only in federal courts. That is, Congress made no statement in Title VII that federal courts had “exclusive jurisdiction” over Title VII claims. Mrs. Harris wishes to sue Forklift Systems, Inc. of Nashville, Tennessee, for sexual harassment under Title VII. She has gone through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission process and has a right-to-sue letter, which is required before a Title VII action can be brought to court. Can she file a complaint that will be heard by a state court?
  3. Mrs. Harris fails to go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to get her right-to-sue letter against Forklift Systems, Inc. She therefore does not have a viable Title VII cause of action against Forklift. She does, however, have her rights under Tennessee’s equal employment statute and various court decisions from Tennessee courts regarding sexual harassment. Forklift is incorporated in Tennessee and has its principal place of business in Nashville. Mrs. Harris is also a citizen of Tennessee. Explain why, if she brings her employment discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuit in a federal court, her lawsuit will be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
  4. Suppose Mr. and Mrs. Robinson find in the original paperwork with Seaway Volkswagen that there is a contractual agreement with a provision that says “all disputes arising between buyer and Seaway Volkswagen will be litigated, if at all, in the county courts of Westchester County, New York.” Will the Oklahoma court take personal jurisdiction over Seaway Volkswagen, or will it require the Robinsons to litigate their claim in New York?