When you’ve been sued, a number of thoughts can rush through your head. How can I resolve this case? How can I get rid of the claims that I’m facing? Do I have the ability to sue the other side back?
As important as all of these questions are, one of the first questions that every Defendant in a lawsuit should ask is, “Does this court have jurisdiction over me?”
- Personal Jurisdiction v. Subject Matter Jurisdiction
When we talk about jurisdiction, we’re talking about the power of a court to adjudicate a claim, and to do so in regards to the parties involved. In reality, these are two separate questions.
Subject Matter Jurisdiction is the power of a court to hear a specific type of claim. For example, if you believe that your United States Constitutional rights have been violated, you wouldn’t bring suit in the courts of the Islamic Republic of Iran. You would not expect that court to have the power to issue a binding ruling about your Constitutional Rights in the United States!
Similarly, there are some claims which may only be brought in the courts of a specific state or in federal court. We’ve previously discussed on the blog what it means that our federal courts are courts of “limited jurisdiction.” Simply put, the federal courts cannot adjudicate all claims between parties, because they’ve only been given power in the Constitution of the United States to render rulings on a very narrow range of issues.
So the first question the Defendant should ask when they’re sued is, “Does this court have jurisdiction over the claims that are being brought?”
- Personal Jurisdiction
Personal Jurisdiction is a more complicated question. It asks, “Does the court have jurisdiction over me as a defendant?” While Subject Matter Jurisdiction cannot be “waived” because it deals with the institutional power of a court, Personal Jurisdiction can be waived.
In other words, if you show up and try to contest the claims against you first, you may give up forever your opportunity that the court in question didn’t have power over you in the first place.
Think about it this way: if you live in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, work in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and do all of your business here, you can’t suddenly be sued in arctic circle of Alaska simply because someone is mad at you. The court in Alaska would have to have Personal Jurisdiction over you. They would have to have a way to prove that they were the proper court to have authority over you as a defendant to adjudicate whether you were right or wrong in the particular dispute.
There are really two types of personal jurisdiction. The first is called General Jurisdiction. This is when a court says that you are so at home in a particular forum that you may always be brought into court in that forum to answer charges. Again, using the facts above, if you live in Pennsylvania and work in Pennsylvania, you will generally have to answer for any sort of conduct that anyone accuses you of if they sue you in Pennsylvania.
But, there’s a second type of jurisdiction which is called Specific Jurisdiction. If you agree to a contract with a company in Arizona and you ship products there and they’re unhappy with them, it’s not all that surprising that you might be sued in Arizona. By targeting your conduct toward that “forum,” you have opened yourself up to the possibility of a lawsuit there.
- This is a factors-based test
The above examples may simplify the matter a little bit, but the fact is that a court has to have jurisdiction over you before it can enter a judgement against you.
The factors that determine whether you are “at home” in a forum state are a lengthy list and should be evaluated by an attorney experienced in this area of the law. If you’ve been sued as a defendant determining whether the court has Subject Matter Jurisdiction and Personal Jurisdiction over you is one of the first and most important steps of the process. This also shows why it’s so important to have a litigation attorney by your side when you’re brought into court.
We encourage you to call the experienced attorneys at the Cornerstone Law Firm today. Whether you’ve been sued in the federal or state courts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey or Maryland, we can help determine whether that court has jurisdiction over you and how to handle your case.