Tackling the most important topics of law school, Part 10b: Hauled into federal court with personal jurisdiction

October 3, 2013

Law School 101aThe previous post discussed the first part of federal jurisdiction: subject-matter; this post will cover the other portion: personal jurisdiction.

At the outset, there is a significant difference between these two types of jurisdiction in how they apply to state court versus federal court: where state courts exercise subject matter jurisdiction over a far broader range of cases than federal courts (except in limited circumstances), federal courts can exercise just as much personal jurisdiction as the court in which the federal court is situated – and sometimes to an even greater degree.

Here’s what I mean by that:

In exercising personal jurisdiction, federal courts use the long arm statute of the state in which the federal court is situated, allowing the federal court to exercise jurisdiction over any defendant that the state court could reach.

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 4(k)(c), federal courts can also exercise personal jurisdiction over defendants when specifically authorized by federal law.  In addition, under Rule 4(k)(2), federal courts can reach a defendant that is not subject to personal jurisdiction in any state’s courts (and, by extension, any federal courts situated within that state).

As you can see, then, the reach of federal courts is greater than state courts when it comes to personal jurisdiction.

Different states have different long arm statutes with varying levels of reach.  How is it determined whether such a statute goes too far and violates the Constitution’s due process protections?

Although there is a long history behind how this has been determined, the current prevailing standard was set by the Supreme Court in 1945’s International Shoe Co. v. Washington

This standard, known as the “minimum contacts” test, is an expansion upon the traditional view of personal jurisdiction that recognized a party as being subject to a court’s authority by that party’s consent, presence, or citizenship in the jurisdiction.

International Shoe’s test asks whether a party has “minimum contacts” in a state; if so, the party is subject to the jurisdiction of that state (and, by extension, a federal court sitting in that state) as long as it does not offend “traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.”

What does “minimum contacts” mean?

In International Shoe, the Court stated that “contact” could either be “casual” contact or “systematic and continuous” contact.

If the party’s contact with the state is merely “casual,” the legal claim for which the court is attempting to exercise jurisdiction over the defendant would need to be related to that contact.  For example, if someone entered a state, but only while travelling in an automobile en route to a destination outside of the state, but he or she caused a car accident while within the state, then a court located within that state could exercise personal jurisdiction over that motorist (this is known as “specific jurisdiction”).

On the other hand, if the party’s contact with the state is “systematic and continuous,” claims completely unrelated to the party’s conduct within the state may be heard in those state’s courts (this is known as “general jurisdiction”).

Several other Supreme Court cases have emerged further developing this doctrine and produce the “purposeful availment” test as a major prong of the “minimum contacts” test.  This “purposeful availment” test finds personal jurisdiction if a party “purposefully and voluntarily directs his activities toward the forum so that he should expect, by virtue of the benefit he receives, to be subject to the court’s jurisdiction based on these contacts.”  The test looks specifically at the intentions of the defendant in his conduct with the forum state.

In addition, the test is meant to ensure that a nonresident defendant will not be haled into a jurisdiction solely based upon “random, fortuitous or attenuated” contacts with the state, somewhat trimming down the broad jurisdiction originally invoked by the “minimum contacts” test.

Courts also look at the “reasonableness” of exercising jurisdiction over certain parties, which has been outlined in 1987’s Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court as five considerations:

  • The severity of the burden on the party;
  • The interests of the forum state in the litigation;
  • The plaintiff’s interests in litigating the matter in that state;
  • Whether a finding of jurisdiction serves interstate efficiency; and
  • Whether a finding of jurisdiction serves interstate policy interests.

Despite these numerous tests, however, the determination of personal jurisdiction is largely fact-sensitive, and none of these analyses are conclusively determinative.

Nevertheless, for the purposes of law school or bar exams, just doing these analyses should be quite helpful toward your overall score.

And with that, we wrap up federal jurisdiction along with our series on the top law school subjects.  We hope you enjoyed it!