Key Takeaway

The mere ownership of property in a state is not a sufficient contact to subject the property owner to a lawsuit in that state, unless that property is the subject of the lawsuit.

 

Shaffer v. Heitner, 433 U.S. 186 (1977)

Shaffer was summarized by the Supreme Court in Burnham v. Superior Court of California:

In that case, a Delaware court hearing a shareholder's derivative suit against a corporation's directors secured jurisdiction quasi in rem by sequestering the out-of-state defendants' stock in the company, the situs of which was Delaware under Delaware law. Reasoning that Delaware's sequestration procedure was simply a mechanism to compel the absent defendants to appear in a suit to determine their personal rights and obligations, we concluded that the normal rules we had developed under International Shoe for jurisdiction over suits against absent defendants should apply -- viz., Delaware could not hear the suit because the defendants' sole contact with the State (ownership of property there) was unrelated to the lawsuit.

Shaffer v. Heitner

433 U.S. 186 (1977)

(Personal Jurisdiction and Minimum Contacts)


Facts:

Appellee Heitner, a nonresident of Delaware, is the owner of one share of stock in the Greyhound Corp., a business incorporated under the laws of Delaware with its principal place of business in Phoenix, Ariz. On May 22, 1974, he filed a shareholder's derivative suit in the Court of Chancery for New Castle County, Del., in which he named as defendants Greyhound, its wholly owned subsidiary Greyhound Lines, Inc., and 28 present or former officers or directors of one or both of the corporations. In essence, Heitner alleged that the individual defendants had violated their duties to Greyhound by causing it and its subsidiary to engage in actions that resulted in the corporations being held liable for substantial damages in a private antitrust suit and a large fine in a criminal contempt action. The activities which led to these penalties took place in Oregon.

Simultaneously with his complaint, Heitner filed a motion for an order of sequestration of the Delaware property of the individual defendants. This motion was accompanied by a supporting affidavit of counsel which stated that the individual defendants were nonresidents of Delaware. The affidavit identified the property to be sequestered as

"common stock, 3% Second Cumulative Preferenced Stock and stock unit credits of the Defendant Greyhound Corporation, a Delaware corporation, as well as all options and all warrants to purchase said stock issued to said individual Defendants and all contractural [sic] obligations, all rights, debts or credits due or accrued to or for the benefit of any of the said Defendants under any type of written agreement, contract or other legal instrument of any kind whatever between any of the individual Defendants and said corporation."

The requested sequestration order was signed the day the motion was filed. Pursuant to that order, the sequestrator "seized" approximately 82,000 shares of Greyhound common stock belonging to 19 of the defendants, and options belonging to another 2 defendants. These seizures were accomplished by placing "stop transfer" orders or their equivalents on the books of the Greyhound Corp. So far as the record shows, none of the certificates representing the seized property was physically present in Delaware. The stock was considered to be in Delaware, and so subject to seizure, which makes Delaware the situs of ownership of all stock in Delaware corporations. 

All 28 defendants were notified of the initiation of the suit by certified mail directed to their last known addresses and by publication in a New Castle County newspaper. The 21 defendants whose property was seized (hereafter referred to as appellants) responded by entering a special appearance for the purpose of moving to quash service of process and to vacate the sequestration order. They contended that the ex parte sequestration procedure did not accord them due process of law and that the property seized was not capable of attachment in Delaware. In addition, appellants asserted that under the rule of International Shoe Co. v. Washington, they did not have sufficient contacts with Delaware to sustain the jurisdiction of that State's courts.

The Court of Chancery rejected these arguments in a letter opinion which emphasized the purpose of the Delaware sequestration procedure:

"The primary purpose of 'sequestration' is not to secure possession of property pending a trial between resident debtors and creditors on the issue of who has the right to retain it. On the contrary, as here employed, 'sequestration' is a process used to compel the personal appearance of a nonresident defendant to answer and defend a suit brought against him in a court of equity. It is accomplished by the appointment of a sequestrator by this Court to seize and hold property of the nonresident located in this State subject to further Court order. If the defendant enters a general appearance, the sequestered property is routinely released, unless the plaintiff makes special application to continue its seizure, in which event the plaintiff has the burden of proof and persuasion."

This limitation on the purpose and length of time for which sequestered property is held, the court concluded, rendered inapplicable the due process requirements. The court also found no state-law or federal constitutional barrier. Finally, the court held that the statutory Delaware situs of the stock provided a sufficient basis for the exercise of quasi in rem jurisdiction by a Delaware court.  

On appeal, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Chancery. Most of the Supreme Court's opinion was devoted to rejecting appellants' contention that the sequestration procedure is inconsistent with the due process analysis developed in the Sniadach line of cases. The court based its rejection of that argument in part on its agreement with the Court of Chancery that the purpose of the sequestration procedure is to compel the appearance of the defendant, a purpose not involved in the Sniadach cases. The court also relied on what it considered the ancient origins of the sequestration procedure and approval of that procedure in the opinions of this Court, Delaware's interest in asserting jurisdiction to adjudicate claims of mismanagement of a Delaware corporation, and the safeguards for defendants that it found in the Delaware statute.  

Appellants' claim that the Delaware courts did not have jurisdiction to adjudicate this action received much more cursory treatment. The court's analysis of the jurisdictional issue is contained in two paragraphs:

"There are significant constitutional questions at issue here but we say at once that we do not deem the rule of International Shoe to be one of them…. The reason, of course, is that jurisdiction under § 366 remains… quasi in rem founded on the presence of capital stock here, not on prior contact by defendants with this forum. Under 8 Del. C. § 169 the 'situs of the ownership of the capital stock of all corporations existing under the laws of this State… [is] in this State,' and that provides the initial basis for jurisdiction. Delaware may constitutionally establish situs of such shares here… it has done so and the presence thereof provides the foundation for § 366 in this case. On this issue we agree with the analysis made and the conclusion reached by Judge Stapleton. "We hold that seizure of the Greyhound shares is not invalid because plaintiff has failed to meet the prior contacts tests of International Shoe."

Issue:

Whether a defendant's ownership of stock in a corporation incorporated within a state, without more, is sufficient to allow that state courts to exercise jurisdiction over the defendant.

Reasoning:

II

The Delaware courts rejected appellants' jurisdictional challenge by noting that this suit was brought as a quasi in rem proceeding. Since quasi in rem jurisdiction is traditionally based on attachment or seizure of property present in the jurisdiction, not on contacts between the defendant and the State, the courts considered appellants' claimed lack of contacts with Delaware to be unimportant. This categorical analysis assumes the continued soundness of the conceptual structure founded on the century-old case of Pennoyer v. Neff.

Under Pennoyerstate authority to adjudicate was based on the jurisdiction's power over either persons or property. This fundamental concept is embodied in the very vocabulary which we use to describe judgments. If a court's jurisdiction is based on its authority over the defendant's person, the action and judgment are denominated "in personam" and can impose a personal obligation on the defendant in favor of the plaintiff. If jurisdiction is based on the court's power over property within its territory, the action is called "in rem" or "quasi in rem." The effect of a judgment in such a case is limited to the property that supports jurisdiction and does not impose a personal liability on the property owner, since he is not before the court. In Pennoyer's terms, the owner is affected only "indirectly" by an in rem judgment adverse to his interest in the property subject to the court's disposition.

By concluding that "[t]he authority of every tribunal is necessarily restricted by the territorial limits of the State in which it is established." Pennoyersharply limited the availability of in personam jurisdiction over defendants not resident in the forum State. If a nonresident defendant could not be found in a State, he could not be sued there. On the other hand, since the State in which property was located was considered to have exclusive sovereignty over that property, in rem actions could proceed regardless of the owner's location. Indeed, since a State's process could not reach beyond its borders, this Court held after Pennoyer that due process did not require any effort to give a property owner personal notice that his property was involved in an in rem proceeding.

Property cannot be subjected to a court's judgment unless reasonable and appropriate efforts have been made to give the property owners actual notice of the action. This conclusion recognizes, contrary to Pennoyer, that an adverse judgment in rem directly affects the property owner by divesting him of his rights in the property before the court. Moreover, in Mullane we held that Fourteenth Amendment rights cannot depend on the classification of an action as in rem or in personam, since that is "a classification for which the standards are so elusive and confused generally and which, being primarily for state courts to define, may and do vary from state to state."

III

In order to justify an exercise of jurisdiction in rem, the basis for jurisdiction must be sufficient to justify exercising "jurisdiction over the interests of persons in a thing." The standard for determining whether an exercise of jurisdiction over the interests of persons is consistent with the Due Process Clause is the minimum-contacts standard elucidated in International Shoe.

This argument, of course, does not ignore the fact that the presence of property in a State may bear on the existence of jurisdiction by providing contacts among the forum State, the defendant, and the litigation. For example, when claims to the property itself are the source of the underlying controversy between the plaintiff and the defendant, it would be unusual for the State where the property is located not to have jurisdiction. In such cases, the defendant's claim to property located in the State would normally indicate that he expected to benefit from the State's protection of his interest. The State's strong interests in assuring the marketability of property within its borders and in providing a procedure for peaceful resolution of disputes about the possession of that property would also support jurisdiction, as would the likelihood that important records and witnesses will be found in the State. The presence of property may also favor jurisdiction in cases, such as suits for injury suffered on the land of an absentee owner, where the defendant's ownership of the property is conceded but the cause of action is otherwise related to rights and duties growing out of that ownership.

Although the presence of the defendant's property in a State might suggest the existence of other ties among the defendant, the State, and the litigation, the presence of the property alone would not support the State's jurisdiction. If those other ties did not exist, cases over which the State is now thought to have jurisdiction could not be brought in that forum.

The primary rationale for treating the presence of property as a sufficient basis for jurisdiction to adjudicate claims over which the State would not have jurisdiction if International Shoe applied is that a wrongdoer "should not be able to avoid payment of his obligations by the expedient of removing his assets to a place where he is not subject to an in personam suit."

This justification, however, does not explain why jurisdiction should be recognized without regard to whether the property is present in the State because of an effort to avoid the owner's obligations. Nor does it support jurisdiction to adjudicate the underlying claim. At most, it suggests that a State in which property is located should have jurisdiction to attach that property, by use of proper procedures, as security for a judgment being sought in a forum where the litigation can be maintained consistently with International Shoe. Moreover, we know of nothing to justify the assumption that a debtor can avoid paying his obligations by removing his property to a State in which his creditor cannot obtain personal jurisdiction over him. The Full Faith and Credit Clause, after all, makes the valid in personam judgment of one State enforceable in all other States.

It might also be suggested that allowing in rem jurisdiction avoids the uncertainty inherent in the International Shoe standard and assures a plaintiff of a forum. We believe, however, that the fairness standard of International Shoe can be easily applied in the vast majority of cases. Moreover, when the existence of jurisdiction in a particular forum under International Shoe is unclear, the cost of simplifying the litigation by avoiding the jurisdictional question may be the sacrifice of "fair play and substantial justice." That cost is too high.

The fiction that an assertion of jurisdiction over property is anything but an assertion of jurisdiction over the owner of the property supports an ancient form without substantial modern justification. Its continued acceptance would serve only to allow state-court jurisdiction that is fundamentally unfair to the defendant.

IV

The Delaware courts based their assertion of jurisdiction in this case solely on the statutory presence of appellants' property in Delaware. Yet that property is not the subject matter of this litigation, nor is the underlying cause of action related to the property. Appellants' holdings in Greyhound do not, therefore, provide contacts with Delaware sufficient to support the jurisdiction of that State's courts over appellants. If it exists, that jurisdiction must have some other foundation.

Appellee Heitner did not allege and does not now claim that appellants have ever set foot in Delaware. Nor does he identify any act related to his cause of action as having taken place in Delaware. Nevertheless, he contends that appellants' positions as directors and officers of a corporation chartered in Delaware provide sufficient "contacts, ties, or relations," with that State to give its courts jurisdiction over appellants in this stockholder's derivative action. This argument is based primarily on what Heitner asserts to be the strong interest of Delaware in supervising the management of a Delaware corporation. That interest is said to derive from the role of Delaware law in establishing the corporation and defining the obligations owed to it by its officers and directors. In order to protect this interest, appellee concludes, Delaware's courts must have jurisdiction over corporate fiduciaries such as appellants.

There is no necessary relationship between holding a position as a corporate fiduciary and owning stock or other interests in the corporation. If Delaware perceived its interest in securing jurisdiction over corporate fiduciaries to be as great as Heitner suggests, we would expect it to have enacted a statute more clearly designed to protect that interest.

Appellee suggests that by accepting positions as officers or directors of a Delaware corporation, appellants performed the acts required by Hanson v. Denckla. He notes that Delaware law provides substantial benefits to corporate officers and directors, and that these benefits were at least in part the incentive for appellants to assume their positions. It is, he says, "only fair and just" to require appellants, in return for these benefits, to respond in the State of Delaware when they are accused of misusing their power. 

But like Heitner's first argument, this line of reasoning establishes only that it is appropriate for Delaware law to govern the obligations of appellants to Greyhound and its stockholders. It does not demonstrate that appellants have "purposefully avail[ed themselves] of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum State," in a way that would justify bringing them before a Delaware tribunal. Appellants have simply had nothing to do with the State of Delaware. Moreover, appellants had no reason to expect to be haled before a Delaware court. Delaware, unlike some States, has not enacted a statute that treats acceptance of a directorship as consent to jurisdiction in the State. And "[i]t strains reason… to suggest that anyone buying securities in a corporation formed in Delaware 'impliedly consents' to subject himself to Delaware's… jurisdiction on any cause of action." Appellants, who were not required to acquire interests in Greyhound in order to hold their positions, did not by acquiring those interests surrender their right to be brought to judgment only in States with which they had had "minimum contacts."

The Due Process Clause "does not contemplate that a state may make binding a judgment… against an individual or corporate defendant with which the state has no contacts, ties, or relations."

Holding:

All assertions of state-court jurisdiction must be evaluated according to the standards set forth in International Shoe and its progeny.

Delaware's assertion of jurisdiction over appellants in this case is inconsistent with that constitutional limitation on state power.


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Court Syllabus

Appellee, a nonresident of Delaware, filed a shareholder's derivative suit in a Delaware Chancery Court, naming as defendants a corporation and its subsidiary, as well as 28 present or former corporate officers or directors, alleging that the individual defendants had violated their duties to the corporation by causing it and its subsidiary to engage in actions (which occurred in Oregon) that resulted in corporate liability for substantial damages in a private antitrust suit and a large fine in a criminal contempt action. Simultaneously, appellee, pursuant to Del. Code Ann., Tit. 10, § 366 (1975), filed a motion for sequestration of the Delaware property of the individual defendants, all nonresidents of Delaware, accompanied by an affidavit identifying the property to be sequestered as stock, options, warrants, and various corporate rights of the defendants. A sequestration order was issued pursuant to which shares and options belonging to 21 defendants (appellants) were "seized" and "stop transfer" orders were placed on the corporate books. Appellants entered a special appearance to quash service of process and to vacate the sequestration order, contending that the ex parte sequestration procedure did not accord them due process; that the property seized was not capable of attachment in Delaware; and that they did not have sufficient contacts with Delaware to sustain jurisdiction of that State's courts under the rule of International Shoe Co. v. Washington. In that case the Court (after noting that the historical basis of in personam jurisdiction was a court's power over the defendant's person, making his presence within the court's territorial jurisdiction a prerequisite to its rendition of a personally binding judgment against him, Pennoyer v. Neff, held that that power was no longer the central concern and that "due process requires only that in order to subject a defendant to a judgment in personam, if he be not present within the territory of the forum, he have certain minimum contacts with it such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend 'traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice'" (and thus the focus shifted to the relationship among the defendant, the forum, and the litigation, rather than the mutually exclusive sovereignty of the States on which the rules of Pennoyer had rested). The Court of Chancery, rejecting appellants' arguments, upheld the § 366 procedure of compelling the personal appearance of a nonresident defendant to answer and defend a suit brought against him in a court of equity, which is accomplished by the appointment of a sequestrator to seize and hold the property of the nonresident located in Delaware subject to court order, with release of the property being made upon the defendant's entry of a general appearance. The court held that the limitation on the purpose and length of time for which sequestered property is held comported with due process and that the statutory situs of the stock (under a provision making Delaware the situs of ownership of the capital stock of all corporations existing under the laws of that State) provided a sufficient basis for the exercise of quasi in rem jurisdiction by a Delaware court. The Delaware Supreme Court affirmed, concluding that International Shoe raised no constitutional barrier to the sequestration procedure because "jurisdiction under § 366 remains… quasi in rem founded on the presence of capital stock [in Delaware], not on prior contact by defendants with this forum."

Held:

1. Whether or not a State can assert jurisdiction over a nonresident must be evaluated according to the minimum-contacts standard of International Shoe Co. v. Washington, supra.

(a) In order to justify an exercise of jurisdiction in rem, the basis for jurisdiction must be sufficient to justify exercising "jurisdiction over the interests of persons in the thing." The presence of property in a State may bear upon the existence of jurisdiction by providing contacts among the forum State, the defendant, and the litigation, as for example, when claims to the property itself are the source of the underlying controversy between the plaintiff and defendant, where it would be unusual for the State where the property is located not to have jurisdiction. 

(b) But where, as in the instant quasi in rem action, the property now serving as the basis for state-court jurisdiction is completely unrelated to the plaintiff's cause of action, the presence of the property alone, i.e., absent other ties among the defendant, the State, and the litigation, would not support the State's jurisdiction. 

(c) Though the primary rationable for treating the presence of property alone as a basis for jurisdiction is to prevent a wrongdoer from avoiding payment of his obligations by removal of his assets to a place where he is not subject to an in personam suit, that is an insufficient justification for recognizing jurisdiction without regard to whether the property is in the State for that purpose. Moreover, the availability of attachment procedures and the protection of the Full Faith and Credit Clause, also militate against that rationale. 

(d) The fairness standard of International Shoe can be easily applied in the vast majority of cases. 

(e) Though jurisdiction based solely on the presence of property in a State has had a long history, "traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice" can be as readily offended by the perpetuation of ancient forms that are no longer justified as by the adoption of new procedures that do not comport with the basic values of our constitutional heritage. 

2. Delaware's assertion of jurisdiction over appellants, based solely as it is on the statutory presence of appellants' property in Delaware, violates the Due Process Clause, which "does not contemplate that a state may make binding a judgment… against an individual or corporate defendant with which the state has no contacts, ties, or relations." 

(a) Appellants' holdings in the corporation, which are not the subject matter of this litigation and are unrelated to the underlying cause of action, do not provide contacts with Delaware sufficient to support jurisdiction of that State's courts over appellants. 

(b) Nor is Delaware state-court jurisdiction supported by that State's interest in supervising the management of a Delaware corporation and defining the obligations of its officers and directors, since Delaware bases jurisdiction, not on appellants' status as corporate fiduciaries, but on the presence of their property in the State. Moreover, sequestration has been available in any suit against a nonresident whether against corporate fiduciaries or not. 

(c) Though it may be appropriate for Delaware law to govern the obligations of appellants to the corporation and stockholders, this does not mean that appellants have "purposefully avail[ed themselves] of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum State." Appellants, who were not required to acquire interests in the corporation in order to hold their positions, did not by acquiring those interests surrender their right to be brought to judgment in the States in which they had "minimum contacts."


How the Justices Voted

Majority: Marshall, joined by Burger, Stewart, White, Blackmun

Concurrence: Powell

Concurrence: Stevens

Concur/dissent: Brennan