An attorney sued his client, Plaintiff Neff, in Oregon for unpaid legal fees. A default judgment was entered against Plaintiff for his failure to come to court or otherwise resist the lawsuit, despite the fact that he was not a resident of Oregon and was not personally served with process. Later, to collect upon his judgment, the attorney had the sheriff seize and sell Plaintiff‘s land. Defendant bought it and received a sheriff’s deed as evidence of title. Plaintiff sued Defendant to recover the possession of the land.
Under the Due Process Clause, no person is subject to the jurisdiction of a court unless he voluntarily appears in the court, is found within the state, resides in the state, or has property in the state that the court has attached.
Plaintiff hired J.H Mitchell for legal work. Plaintiff failed to pay Mitchell, and Mitchell sued in Oregon state court. Neff was neither a resident of the state nor was he personally served with process. Instead, Mitchell published notice of the summons. After Neff failed to appear, default judgment was entered against him. Shortly thereafter, Neff took title to a tract of land in Oregon. Mitchell had the sheriff seize the land to be sold to satisfy the judgment. Defendant bought it and received a sheriff’s deed as evidence of title. Plaintiff sued Defendant to recover the property in the United States Circuit Court for the District of Oregon. The lower court concluded that Mitchell’s judgment was invalid due to defects in the affidavit on which the constructive service was based. Defendant appealed.
Can a state court exercise personal jurisdiction against a non-resident who was not personally served with process within the state but by publication in a newspaper?
The court’s personal jurisdiction must be established before a judgment is rendered, or the judgment will be void. States retain their sovereign authority, subject to the Constitution, and its power does not extend beyond its territory. A state may not exercise in personam jurisdiction over a nonresident on the basis of property ownership alone. The validity of judgments against persons who have not been personally summoned or had notice of the proceeding may be directly questioned, and their enforcement in the State resisted under due process. Service by publication may be effective for proceedings in rem, in which the owner will be made aware of the proceedings by the seizure of her property, but not for in personam actions. Constructive notice to a nonresident is insufficient for proceedings to determine personal rights and obligations. Jurisdiction there is only proper if the defendant is served inside the state or voluntarily appears.
Here, the judgment from the underlying action (the Mitchell’s lawsuit) was invalid since Neff (plaintiff in this lawsuit and defendant in Mitchell’s lawsuit) was a non-resident of the state in which the action was brought and was not personally served. Moreover, Neff did not voluntarily appear or receive service in the state. Therefore, the Oregon court lacked in personam jurisdiction, and its ruling was void. The judgment of the lower court is therefore affirmed.