In Rem and Quasi In Rem Jurisdiction
Learn about the theories that allow a court to hear a case based on the presence of property in the forum, referred to as in rem or quasi in rem jurisdiction.
If a plaintiff cannot get a court to exercise in personam jurisdiction over a defendant, the court still might exercise personal jurisdiction on a theory of in rem or quasi in rem jurisdiction. Both in rem and quasi in rem allow a court to exercise personal jurisdiction on the basis of the defendant’s property being in the forum state. A judgment in rem binds the entire world as to the future disposition of that property, but not the individual parties to the suit; for example, think of an eminent domain case where the state takes private land for public use. This action is binding on the owner of the land, but also on anyone else who might have an interest in the land. The statutory bases for in rem jurisdiction typically involve actions against property, such as condemnation, confiscation, forfeiture, distribution of an estate, or, as we mentioned, eminent domain. In rem jurisdiction will be deemed constitutional so long as the property is located within the state and was not brought there by fraud or trick.
Like in rem jurisdiction, a court can hear a quasi in rem action if the named property is within the court’s jurisdiction, even if the court does not have in personam jurisdiction. But unlike in rem, quasi in rem only adjudicates the rights to the named property as between the parties to the suit; not as against the entire world. Quasi in rem comes in two forms known as type I and type II. In a type I action, the cause of action and the property are related; for example, where a mortgage lender attaches the property of a debtor to his claim in order to satisfy the mortgage debt. In a type II action, the plaintiff attaches the defendant’s property to his claim, but the claim and the property are not related. A type 2 action is more controversial. In a type 2 action, a plaintiff may sue on a personal claim and attach the named property to satisfy his claim against the property’s owner, even if the plaintiff’s claim is unrelated to the property. It’s easy to see why this could raise some thorny due process questions. Consider a defendant who owns a piece of land in California—perhaps through inheritance—but has never once stepped foot in California. Imagine the defendant negligently causes a car accident in his home state of Maine. Does it seem fair that a plaintiff could haul our defendant into a California court simply on the grounds that the defendant owns a piece of property there? In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed this exact issue in Shaffer v. Heitner, 433 U.S. 186 (1977), which held that quasi in rem actions must satisfy the minimum contacts test from International Shoe and that ownership of property in the forum state by itself is not sufficient to satisfy minimum contacts. Therefore, in our hypothetical, the California court would not be able to exercise personal jurisdiction over our defendant because his only contact with California is the property that he owns there. In the real world, type 2 quasi in rem actions are rare because they limit the plaintiff’s recovery to the property named in the action. If you can prove minimum contacts, as a plaintiff you are better off using in personam jurisdiction which does not limit recovery.