The Personal Jurisdiction Requirement for Civil Lawsuits in U.S. Courts

A certain connection between a defendant and the geographical jurisdiction of a court is necessary in order for a civil lawsuit to proceed in the U.S.

This connection exists, for instance, if an individual defendant is served with a summons and complaint while he is in the geographical jurisdiction of the court or if the defendant waives the defense of lack of personal jurisdiction. Similarly there is clearly personal jurisdiction when an individual defendant is a resident of the geographical jurisdiction of the court or a defendant corporation or other business entity was organized under the laws of that jurisdiction or is “doing business” there.

U.S. Supreme Court Building

In addition, there is personal jurisdiction if the defendant has sufficient “minimum contacts” with the forum state, such that summoning the defendant to the forum state would not offend “‘traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.’ ” This is the U.S. Supreme Court’s articulation of the requirement under the due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court also has said that a defendant’s “minimum contacts” with the forum must be more than “random,” “fortuitous,” or “attenuated.” Sufficient contacts exist when “the defendant’s conduct and connection with the forum . . . are such that he should reasonably anticipate being haled into court there.” In assessing the defendant’s reasonable anticipation, there must be “ ‘some act by which the defendant purposefully avails itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum . . ., thus invoking the benefits and protections of its laws.’ ”[1]

This test is the same whether the defendant is from another state in the U.S. or from a foreign country. However, as the United States Supreme Court has stated, “ ‘Great care and reserve should be exercised when extending our notions of personal jurisdiction into the international field.’ ”[2]

Thus, any defense lawyer in a civil case immediately must determine whether personal jurisdiction obviously is established or whether there is a legitimate basis to challenge this requirement by asserting the defense in the answer to the complaint or by moving to dismiss the case before anything else happens.[3]

As a civil litigator, I encountered this issue all the time in my practice. In two cases for foreign clients I obtained dismissal of the complaint for lack of such jurisdiction at the start of the cases.

Fraser Bridge, Delta, B.C., Canada

In one case, my client was a Canadian corporation from Delta, British Columbia that was a subcontractor to a company from the State of Washington that had an agreement with a Twin Cities FM-radio station to provide certain electronic equipment for the station. The equipment was manufactured by the Canadian company and sold to the Washington company that in turn sold it to the radio station. The equipment allegedly did not work properly so the station sued the Canadian company in a Minnesota state court. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, and the appellate court affirmed. The latter emphasized that the Canadian company never had an office, owned property or filed tax returns in Minnesota, had never had a mailing address or telephone number in this State, and did not negotiate any agreement with the radio station. While the Canadian company, upon request, shipped the equipment directly to the station in Minnesota and later sent a technician to the state to attempt to fix the equipment, hand delivered a part for the equipment to the station and mailed certain drawings of the equipment directly to the station for use by its consultant, these contacts were insufficient to justify jurisdiction.[4]

Singapore skyline

In the other case, my clients were parent and subsidiary companies from Singapore. Again the trial court (Post: Minnesota’s Federal Court (June 28, 2011) dismissed the case for lack of personal jurisdiction, and the appellate court affirmed. The latter court noted that the Singapore subsidiary had sent numerous letters and faxes and made several telephone calls to Minnesota in connection with the contract and that the contract contained a Minnesota choice-of-law provision. In addition, the Singapore subsidiary sent four samples of the product in question to Minnesota. These, however, the court held to be insufficient to justify personal jurisdiction.[5]

The appellate court in this second case concluded by saying that the negotiations, meetings, production, and delivery were all centered in Singapore. The contacts with Minnesota appeared at best as inconsequential rather than substantial under these circumstances. The Singapore subsidiary did not create a substantial connection between itself and Minnesota, it merely engaged in negotiations with a purchaser who happened to reside in Minnesota. Given the nature and quality of the Singapore subsidiary’s  contacts with Minnesota, traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice indicated that it would not expect to litigate in the State of Minnesota.[6]

The personal jurisdiction issue is part of the regular tool kit of the trial lawyer and litigator. Yet it is built on the constitutional bedrock of fair play.


[3] E.g., Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 8 (c ), 12(b)(2).

[4]  KSTP-FM, LLC v. Adtronics Signs, Ltd., 602 N.W.2d 919 (Minn. Ct. App. 1999).

[5] Digi-Tel Holdings, Inc. v. Proteq Communications, Inc., 89 F.3d 519 (8th Cir. 1996).

[6]  Id.

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

3 thoughts on “The Personal Jurisdiction Requirement for Civil Lawsuits in U.S. Courts”

  1. Another Victory for Foreign Client

    I obtained another dismissal of a federal court complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction over a foreign corporation.

    This time it was an Israeli company that designed, manufactured and distributed computer equipment and other systems to inspect automatically printed circuit boards. Important for that conclusion was the court’s refusal to impute to the Israeli company the Minnesota-contacts of its wholly-owned subsidiary that had a 35-person office in the State for distribution of the parent’s products. According to the court, the separate corporate formalities were followed, and there was no element of injustice or fundamental unfairness in seeing them as separate entities. (Memorandum Opinion & Order at 2-9, Tibor Darvas, Ltd. V. Orbot Systems, Ltd., Civ. No. 4-93-633 (D. Minn. Nov. 15, 1993). See Post: Minnesota’s Federal Court (June 28, 2011).)

  2. Ive been meaning to read this and just never received a chance. Its an issue that Im really interested in, I just started reading and Im glad I did. Youre a good blogger, 1 of the best that Ive seen. This blog absolutely has some data on subject that I just wasnt aware of. Thanks for bringing this stuff to light.

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