Up until the later part of the nineteenth century, personal jurisdiction was tied to a state’s territorial jurisdiction. In those days, personal jurisdiction over a defendant was established either by serving a defendant with process within the boundaries of the state, attaching land owned by the defendant within the state, or through the defendant’s consent or agreement to submit to the court’s jurisdiction. These traditional basis of jurisdiction were grounded upon the defendant’s physical presence within the forum state or jurisdiction.  This is one of the most firmly established principles of personal jurisdiction in the United States and can be traced back to English common law.

In fact, if you go back far enough into the history of personal jurisdiction, you will find that at common law, English sheriffs were authorized to physically arrest a civil defendant pursuant to a court issued writ. What would obviously be regarded as an outrageous restraint on our physical liberty today was, back then, a gentle reminder of the state’s ability to exercise control over every individual who was present within its territorial borders, whether they were residents or merely just passing through. And it did not end there.  Under the law then in place, the Sheriff would continue to detain and jail the defendant while he or she waited for a disposition of the law suit.

Thankfully for all of us, in the mid-eighteenth century, this procedure was replaced by the Summons and the concept of service of process which was designed to provide formal notice to a civil defendant that suit had been initiated in the court and a legal requirement to appear and defend, or face the consequences of a default. The Summons introduced an element of trust and personal agency into the system, as it allowed the civil defendant the ability to remain free of the court’s physical control while the case was pending, and return to court to answer the for the claim on his or her own recognizance.

Historically, federal and state courts exercised personal jurisdiction over a defendant with reference to state law only. As such, the laws of the forum state were the primary source of the court’s jurisdictional authority. However, in 1878, the U.S. Supreme Court constitutionalized this process in Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714 (1878), by firmly tying the requirement of notice to a court’s power to exercise personal jurisdiction over a civil defendant.

In Pennoyer, the Court held that service of process by publication on a non-resident defendant violated the due process clause of the 14th Amendment because the defendant was not provided with adequate notice under the law and was thus unable to properly defend himself. In this holding, the Court (perhaps unintentionally) set the stage for the expansion of the concept of notice as interpreted by what it meant to be accorded due process of law under the 14th amendment.

What I find so fascinating about this case, which I couldn’t begin to appreciate in law school, was the actual effect that this holding had on the parties.  Because the defendant, Neff, was not provided adequate notice in accordance with Constitutional due process principles, that meant that the trial court never acquired jurisdiction over him in the first instance.  This led to the invalidation of the sale and transfer of Neff’s property to Pennoyer, many years later, which was acquired in connection with Neff’s former attorney’s levy on a judgment against Neff for unpaid legal fees. Pennoyer, who was apparently a good faith purchaser for value and without notice or reason to know that Neff could even challenge his purchase, had to deal with the fallout and aftermath of a judicial finding that he was not the owner of the property after all and that the transaction needed to be unwound and set aside. Based on my research, Pennoyer owned the property for about 8 years before Neff took action in federal court to set aside the sale. That’s a lot of time for Pennoyer to lay the seeds of detrimental reliance, among other things, and grow some pretty deep roots on the property. One can only imagine the litigation that followed and how that dispute was resolved among the parties.

At that point in the late nineteenth century, since the car had not yet been invented, people and things were more likely to stay put; thus giving rise to fewer jurisdictional disputes.  As a result, the traditional basis of jurisdiction (presence, consent, and ownership of property) were, more often than not, sufficient to provide a Plaintiff with a remedy and a fairly easy means of acquiring jurisdiction over civil defendants. However, all of that radically changed in the twentieth century with the invention of the airplane, the expanded use of cars, and other technological advances that both allowed individuals (and companies) to travel around more easily, and act remotely from greater distances than ever before. This all culminated with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310 (1945).

In International Shoe, the Court continued to build upon the process of constitutionalizing the notice requirement (announced in Pennoyer v. Neff) by introducing the “minimum contacts” test. Under this test, a state court could only exercise personal jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant if that defendant had certain minimum contacts with the foreign state such that the exercise of jurisdiction did “not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.” However, the Court went even further by requiring state courts to also have a statutory basis for personal jurisdiction which also comported with federal due process requirements. While State courts were slow to catch on and adopt what we now know as “long arm” statutes, today every State in the U.S. has enacted some form of a statute or a court rule which effectively serves to satisfy the rule announced by the Court in International Shoe, thus giving the State a legal mechanism to effectively expand its jurisdiction beyond its physical borders based upon a civil defendant’s interaction with the State or its residents.

International Shoe was followed by several important precedent cases from the U.S. Supreme Court which served to develop the scope and limits of a state court’s exercise of personal jurisdiction over non-resident defendants, including:

  • Perkins v. Benguet Consolidated Mining Co., 342 U.S. 437 (1952) (the Court began to refine the concept of “general” personal jurisdiction, opening the door to allow a [forum] state to exercise personal jurisdiction over a non-resident [corporate] defendant that engaged in sufficiently substantial activities within the forum state, even though the cause of action arose from activities entirely distinct from those activites).
  • Hanson v. Denckla, 357 U.S. 235 (1958) (the minimum contacts analysis only applies to situations in which a non-resident defendant has purposefully availed himself or herself of the privilege of conducting activities in the forum state, thus invoking the benefits and protections of the laws of that state)
  • World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286 (1980) (simply being able to foresee a product’s arrival in the forum state will never by itself establish minimum contacts over a non-resident seller of that product. Instead, foreseeability is relevant only when the non-resident defendant’s conduct and connection with the forum State are such that he should reasonably anticipate being haled into court there).
  • Helicopteros Nacionales de Colombia, S.A. v. Hall, 466 U.S. 408 (1984) (“continuous and systematic general business contacts” are necessary to satisfy due process minimum contacts under a general jurisdiction analysis).
  • Burger King Corp. v. Rudzewicz, 471 U.S. 462 (1985) (exercise of jurisdiction did not violate due process where non-resident defendant established a substantial and continuing relationship with plaintiff in the forum state, received fair notice from the contract documents and the course of dealing with plaintiff that he might be subjected to suit in the forum state, and failed to demonstrate how jurisdiction in that forum would otherwise be fundamentally unfair)
  • Asahi Metal Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Super. Ct. of Cal., Solano Cnty., 480 U.S. 102 (1987) (exercise of personal jurisdiction over non-resident must be “reasonable” in order to satisfy due process concerns. To determine whether an exercise of jurisdiction is reasonable, a court must consider: (i) the burden on the defendant; (ii) the interests of the forum State; (iii) the plaintiff’s interest in obtaining relief; (iv) the interstate judicial system’s interest in obtaining the most efficient resolution of controversies; and (v) the shared interest of the several States in furthering fundamental substantive social policies).
  • Goodyear Dunlop Tires Operations, S.A. v. Brown, 564 U.S. 915 (2011) (forum state may not exercise general personal jurisdiction over a foreign subsidiary of a U.S. corporation if the subsidiary does not have continuous and systematic business contacts with the forum state)
  • Daimler AG v. Bauman, 571 U.S. 117 (2014) (the Supreme Court limited general jurisdiction by only allowing the court of a forum state to exercise personal jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant if he or she was domiciled in the forum state or, in the case of a corporation, if the corporation’s connection with the forum state is “so continuous and systematic” that it could be fairly regarded as being “at home” in the forum state.  Having a branch office or license in the forum state does not, in itself, expose the corporation to personal jurisdiction in the forum state, particularly where the corporation’s activities in the forum are unrelated to the plaintiff’s claims. Daimler can also be viewed as expanding jurisdictional possibilities by allowing a forum state to exercise jurisdiction over a corporation that is “at home” in its state – due to its systematic and continuous contacts – even though it is incorporated or principally based in another state).

While each of these cases is worthy of individual treatment and a separate blog post, in sum, they elaborated primarily on more discrete circumstances that warrant the exercise of personal jurisdiction, particularly fact patterns involving “single or occasional acts” occurring or having their impact within the forum State.  Broadly speaking, the Supreme Court continued to refine what it meant for a non-resident defendant to have minimum contacts with the forum state and inquired into whether there was some act by which the non-resident defendant purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum State, thereby invoking the benefits and protections of its laws.