As technology in general and the internet in general progress, one of the areas of the law that is becoming more and more important, especially if you are representing yourself, is jurisdiction. That will be the topic of this and the next several posts.
Imagine this scenario. You live in upstate New York. You make your living by going to estate sales and auctions, where you buy antiques which you later sell on Ebay. The doorbell rings. You open the door to a person that hands you some papers. When you look at what you’ve received, you see that these are court papers and you in fact are the defendant in a lawsuit brought in Utah. You notice that you have twenty days to answer. Your first response is “WTF – I’ve never been to Utah. I don’t know anybody there. What’s going on and what do I do?”
Technology and the way we do business has changed dramatically in just the last twenty years or so. When business used to be done locally, when you bought things from local stores, when transactions were done in person, the issue of where disputes would be settled was a simple one. Now everything is different. Ebay, Craigslist, the internet in general, make the whole country, perhaps the whole world a marketplace. When you provide services, or sell things on the internet, who have no way of knowing where a person that you might deal with is located. You have no way of knowing or controlling where your services or product will finally be delivered or used. The ballgame has changed!!
In this and the next few posts, we’ll talk about the issue of jurisdiction, and more specifically how and when the courts of one state can exercise jurisdiction over people in another state. And most important, how to deal with things if you find yourself in the position of our hypothetical antique seller.
Let’s talk a little about jurisdiction. In particular, we are going to be talking about personal jurisdiction (sometimes called in personam jurisdiction), as opposed to what the law refers to as subject matter jurisdiction. The latter is a separate topic, for another day. What we are talking about is how and when a court can exercise jurisdiction – that is exercise authority over you.
The topic of jurisdiction can be wildly complicated, but understanding a couple of principles will make it little easier to wade through.
First, while most people believe that a court can exercise control over anyone, that is simply not true. A court can do nothing regarding anyone until it has acquired jurisdiction. Interestingly, it is a single document, when properly served that confers personal jurisdiction upon a court, and that is the summons. Until a plaintiff can demonstrate to a court that a defendant has been served with a summons, in a way authorized by law, that court has no jurisdiction over – that is it can take no action over that defendant.
However, even if a person has received the summons, as with our antique seller, the question of whether or not a court can exercise jurisdiction can still be very complicated.
Before we talk about the different factors that determine whether or not a court in a different state may have jurisdiction over you, in that this blog and our website is all about representing yourself, there is one absolutely critical thing that you need to know, and there is no way to overstate the importance of this.
If you are sued in another state, and you even think there is the slightest possibility that that state may not have jurisdiction over you, DO NOT ANSWER THE COMPLAINT.
That’s right. Take a deep breath, study and review things, but the LAST thing you want to be doing is firing off an answer in which you deny that you did anything wrong, etc.
Because in every state, in every court, you can be deemed to have waived any jurisdictional issue by filing a general answer, that is an answer that addresses anything other than jurisdiction. Admittedly, many states have rules that provide that as long as you object to jurisdiction, you have not waived it, but why take the chance? Why risk finding yourself defending a lawsuit in a court a thousand miles away, when you could have forced your opponent to come to you?
There are some options to dealing with the issue of jurisdiction, and we’ll deal with those in more detail.
In subsequent posts, I’ll talk about the concept of “long arm” jurisdiction, that Is the ability of courts to exercise jurisdiction of non-residents, and how to deal with jurisdictional issues.