Personal jurisdiction is the power of a court over the parties in a case (as opposed to subject-matter jurisdiction, which involves power over the subject of the case). We frequently receive calls from defendants disputing personal jurisdiction–or in the case of plaintiffs, asserting it–but it is often unclear whether or not jurisdiction ought to be granted, especially in cases involving extraterritorial in personam jurisdiction (a court in state A is suing a defendant in state B, where A ≠ B).  Thankfully, we have  procedures by which we can determine the answer to the jurisdiction question.

For a court to have personal jurisdiction over a defendant, the court must have both a statutory basis as well as a constitutional basis for exercising jurisdiction. 

Statutory basis Edit

The state must have a long-arm statute that authorizes extraterritorial in personam jurisdiction. Massachusetts (in fact, all fifty states) has a long-arm statute which considers “any business transaction” and “causing any tortious injury” by the defendant to grant a statutory basis for personal jurisdiction. In cases where the defendant’s contact with the forum state do not fall under any of the provisions in the long-arm statute, there is no statutory basis, and therefore the court does not have personal jurisdiction over the defendant.

Constitutional Basis Edit

A statutory basis is necessary, but not sufficient, for extraterritorial in personam jurisdiction. Even if the jurisdiction comports with the state statutes, it must also comport with the 14th amendment’s due process clause. Whether or not an exercise of jurisdiction adheres to due process can be unclear, but common law precedents provide us with useful tests by which we can determine constitutionality.

Traditional Bases of Jurisdiction Edit

If the case falls into any of the below categories, then the court does have a constitutional basis for jurisdiction.

  • Presence - If the defendant is in the state and served
  • Domiciliary status - If the defendant has clear intentions to make the forum state a place of permanent residence
  • Consent - If the defendant consents to personal jurisdiction, either express or implied
  • Property - If the defendant owes property in forum state, though this requires additional conditions

If the case falls under none of the above categories, then we move on to the Minimum Contacts Test as established in International Shoe.

Minimum Contacts Test Edit

In International Shoe, the court ruled that personal jurisdiction follows due process when minimal contacts with the forum are made such that the exercise of jurisdiction “does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.”

 Today, we read this as a two-fold test: the defendant must have made sufficient minimal contacts with the forum, and the exercise of jurisdiction must be reasonable.

Minimal contacts Edit

Depending on the type of the contacts made, the court can either have general or specific jurisdiction. Continuous and systematic contacts could grant specific or general jurisdiction (or none at all, depending on the circumstances), and isolated and casual contacts could grant specific, but never general, jurisdiction.

  • General Jurisdiction
    • An important case that demonstrates general jurisdiction is Perkins, in which the court ruled that Ohio courts have personal jurisdiction over a company based elsewhere because its president was present and active in Ohio (i.e., continuous and systematic contacts), even though the causes of action are unrelated to the contacts made in the forum. This demonstrates the principle of general jurisdiction, which gives courts personal jurisdiction over the defendant even if the cause of action does not directly arise from the contacts made in the forum. 
  • Specific Jurisdiction
    • Specific jurisdiction arises from isolated and casual contacts. The cause of action must directly arise out of these contacts, unlike general jurisdiction. To determine whether a court has specific jurisdiction over a defendant, the defendant must have demonstrated purposeful availment–that is, the defendant must have availed him/herself of the benefits and privileges of the state (such as selling products in a state to gain profit from its residents), and deliberately in that particular state, such that the defendant can reasonably anticipate having to litigate in that state. The standard of purposeful availment applies to contractual relations.

Reasonableness Edit

Once having established that sufficient minimal contacts have been made, the second part of the test assesses whether or not the jurisdiction is reasonable. The test involves five factors:

  • Burden on defendant - This one is commonly contested, as defendants often argue against personal jurisdiction by citing the inconvenience of the forum. For instance, it is difficult for a defendant living in CA to attend a trial in NY. However, precedents show that inconvenience of travel is not sufficient to prove lack of reasonableness; still others show that it is not reasonable to exercise personal jurisdiction when “the forum is so gravely inconvenient that the defendant is at a severe disadvantage in litigation.”
  • Interest of Plaintiff in obtaining relief - Usually, a plaintiff suing a defendant has an interest in obtaining relief (winning damages)
  • Interest of Forum State
  • Efficient adjudication of disputes
  • Furthering of fundamental substantive social polices