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Federal Court Personal Jurisdiction – Explained

Cite this article as: Jason Mance Gordon, "Federal Court Personal Jurisdiction – Explained," in The Business Professor, updated January 3, 2015, last accessed March 29, 2020, https://thebusinessprofessor.com/knowledge-base/federal-personal-jurisdiction/.
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Personal Jurisdiction in Federal Courts
What is Personal Jurisdiction in Federal Courts? Federal courts depend upon state service of process laws for effecting personal jurisdiction.

Next Article: State Court Personal Jurisdiction


How does a federal court get personal jurisdiction over someone in a civil case?

Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure lays out the process for a federal court establishing personal jurisdiction over a defendant. In summary, the federal court must employ the state law governing personal jurisdiction that is applicable in the state in which the federal court is located. The federal court adopting the state’s procedural law must subject the defendant to the same procedures as if the case were in state court. Erie Railroad Company v Tompkins. That is, the federal court will use the state’s procedural rules for serving process on individuals within the state’s borders and may also use the state’s long-arm statute to reach defendants outside of the state’s geographic boundary. As discussed further below, the long-arm statute is a special statute allowing the state to serve a summons on a defendant who is not physically located in the state.

  • Relevant Law: It is well established in diversity cases that “the district court’s personal jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant is governed by the forum’s long-arm statute.” Sawtelle v. Farrell, 70 F.3d 1381 (1st Cir. 1995)
  • Note: If the subject-matter of the case is exclusively federal, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allow the federal court to exercise personal jurisdiction over the defendant regardless of where she is located. That is, the federal court is not limited by the state’s service of process rules. Federal procedure allows for service of process anywhere in the United States and its territories.

Discussion: Why do you think that federal district courts use the procedural rules for service of process of the state in which the court is located? Is there an argument that federal courts should have their own uniform rules for service of process?

Discussion Input

  • Often the federal court will employ state resources to effect service of process. As such, it seems natural that the federal rules would employ local procedure. Also, the Erie Railroad Company v Tomkins case makes clear that state procedural law should be used in these situations. The court’s justification is to preserve the defendant’s due process rights and avoid forum shopping for procedural advantage. There is an argument, however, that both of the justifications could be satisfied by simply employing a uniform federal procedure for service of process.

Practice Question: Lindsay, a Florida resident, entered into a services contract with Rachel, a Georgia resident. Rachel later failed to perform and breached the agreement. As a result of Rachel’s breach, Lindsay claims to have suffered damages in the amount of $100,000. Lindsay plans to bring a civil action against Rachel in the Federal District court located in Georgia. At the time, Florida allowed process servers to deliver service of process, but Georgia required service of process to be carried out by the local Sheriff’s office. Lindsay hired a Florida process server to deliver service of process to Rachel. What is the personal jurisdiction issue in this case?

Proposed Answer

  • In this situation. Rachel would have an argument that the district court does not have personal jurisdiction over her as a result of improper service of process. Per Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, in accordance with the doctrine prescribed in the Erie case, Rachel must be served with process pursuant to Georgia law.

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