A court’s decision to exercise jurisdiction over the parties in a civil action is probably the most consequential aspect of any civil proceeding. Whether the court even has jurisdiction over a defendant is one of the first questions that a defense attorney must ask when evaluating a new claim and developing a strategy. The three pillars that support every civil claim are: (1) subject matter jurisdiction; (2) personal jurisdiction; and the related concept of (3) venue. While all three of these will be covered in this blog, I will focus mostly on issues and cases relating to personal jurisdiction.
I had my first real-world encounter with a case involving personal jurisdiction in the early 90’s when I was fresh out of law school. The plaintiff was a passenger on a charter boat who was seriously injured when the boat was hit by a rogue wave off the coast of Ft. Lauderdale. The lawsuit was filed against everyone who had anything to do with the ownership or operation of the boat, including my client who happened to be a deckhand on the boat that day; a textbook case of being in the wrong place at the right time.
Fast forward many months later, the plaintiff obtained default judgments against all of the defendants, having perfected substituted service by serving the Secretary of State for Florida. A jury trial followed on the issue of damages and the jury returned a verdict for the Plaintiff in the amount of $2,394,000.00, with 12% statutory interest!
Shortly thereafter, I was retained by the deckhand, who was in an obvious state of panic after having been notified that she was on the wrong side of a massive civil judgment that was entered against her by default. Around the same time, the holder of a first preferred ship’s mortgage on the vessel, who was also judgment debtor in the case, retained separate counsel, and we coordinated a joint effort to each move to quash service and set aside the default judgments entered against our respective clients based upon insufficiency of service of process owing to a lack of minimum contacts with Florida. In short, our argument was that the Court did not have personal jurisdiction over our clients, and thus the default judgment was void as applied to them. After a limited evidentiary hearing on the Motions to Vacate, the circuit court judge denied the Motions, finding that the defendants were properly served and that the Plaintiff had adequately established that both defendants had the required minimum contacts with the State of Florida.
My client, the deckhand, lacking sufficient financial resources (or any real assets against which a judgment of that size could even begin to be applied in satisfaction), accepted the ruling and vanished off into the seafarer’s realm from where she came. But our co-defendant, the holder of the first preferred ship’s mortgage, filed an appeal with the Fourth District Court of Appeal challenging the Judge’s ruling. Even though my client’s interests were no longer implicated and would remain unaffected by the disposition on appeal, since I was on the service list, I followed the appeal very carefully and waited in anticipation to see how it would resolve.
On review, the Fourth DCA reversed the order denying the appellant’s Motion to Vacate. In a published opinion, the Court held that it was not so much that the appellant lacked minimum contacts with Florida as that he lacked any contact with Florida whatsoever. Of course, the appellate Mandate was limited to our co-defendant in the case and did not apply to my client, who did not appeal the ruling. But that result on appeal, building upon what I had learned in law school – starting with Pennoyer v. Neff , 95 U.S. 714 (1878) – planted the seed of the idea that grew into my decision to launch this blog on Florida Personal Jurisdiction.
As a young lawyer, it absolutely blew my mind that the first preferred mortgage holder was able to completely avoid liability for a 2.3 million dollar judgment, regardless of fault, simply based upon not having the requisite contacts with the State of Florida. It was one thing to read about the minimum contacts test announced in International Shoe v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310 (1945), when I was in my second year of law school, but to see it in technicolor, on that scale, was a real treat … from the defense perspective, of course.
And taking it another step further, I also came to appreciate the broader implications of making a Rule 1.540(b)(4) motion seeking relief from a void judgment. A judgment of a court without personal jurisdiction is void and it violates the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution. Thus, if a judgment (or order) is void, in addition to the obvious fact that any further actions or orders that are based upon that judgment (such as writs of execution or orders of contempt) are also void, it also means that the judgment debtor may file the motion at any time, with or without a showing of due diligence or excusable neglect, and regardless of whether a meritorious defense exists. And to top it off, I wondered how the trial judge could be so completely wrong. I mean, I understand how reasonable minds could differ about the quantity or quality of the contacts and whether they were sufficient to satisfy federal due process concerns. But the trial judge in my boat case was reversed on appeal because there were no contacts at all. None whatsoever, according to the 4th DCA. Surely, I thought, the trial judge must have misunderstood the facts. How could the judge forget to properly apply the minimum contacts test? Maybe it was just obvious to me because I was so fresh out of law school.
If a civil judgment is in fact void, then there is nothing anyone can do, or fail to do, from that day forward to breath life into it and make it un-void. A void judgment is a void judgment. It never existed in the first place. Lack of personal jurisdiction, I reasoned, is the ultimate end-all tactical tool that defense attorneys have in their arsenal; and, ironically, the first thing that every defense attorney must consider before filing the first pleading in any civil case.