Before you file a lawsuit, you will want to make sure that you are filing in a court that has the authority to hear the case. This concept is known as jurisdiction, and it consists of two main parts. The court must have power over the defendant that you are suing, which is known as personal jurisdiction, and it must have the power to resolve the legal issues in the case, which is known as subject matter jurisdiction.
A related but separate concept is called venue. This involves choosing which court in a certain state should hear your case. Courts are usually designated according to a city, county, or judicial district. Venue rules exist to prevent a defendant from litigating a case in an excessively inconvenient forum.
Any state court will have personal jurisdiction over any individual who is a citizen of that state, as well as any business that conducts business in that state. This is true regardless of where the events that form the basis of the lawsuit occurred. If you would prefer to file your lawsuit in a different state, you may need to prove certain facts to show that jurisdiction is proper there.
You can sue in a state where a defendant does not reside or do business if you serve them with the summons and complaint while they are in that state. (This is known as tag jurisdiction, and it applies even if the defendant is only briefly in the state.) States also provide that a plaintiff can bring a personal injury case against any defendant who caused a car accident in that state.
If neither of those situations applies, a plaintiff may need to show that the defendant has minimum contacts with the state in which they are being sued. This standard is vague, but essentially the judge will need to find that it is fair for the court to have jurisdiction over the defendant, based on their activity in the state. If a company solicits business in a state, maintains a physical location in a state, or accepts online orders from customers in a state, this requirement likely is satisfied. A judge is more likely to find that jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant is fair if the defendant’s contacts with the state relate to the basis of the lawsuit.
Subject Matter Jurisdiction
While personal jurisdiction involves the location of the court, subject matter jurisdiction involves choosing between federal and state courts. Most lawsuits are filed in state courts, unless the case involves a question of federal law. Federal question jurisdiction can arise in patent infringement cases, civil rights cases, federal tax cases, and other areas that the federal government extensively regulates.
If the case does not involve a federal question, a federal court will have jurisdiction only if diversity of citizenship applies. This means that the plaintiff is suing a citizen of another state and seeking at least $75,000 in damages. Diversity must be complete, so a case involving multiple plaintiffs and multiple defendants must feature no plaintiff from the same state as any defendant for a federal court to hear the case. People are citizens of only one state, which is where they have their principal residence. Corporations can be citizens of both the state in which they were incorporated and the state in which they have their principal place of business, if these are different.
Often, a case that can be filed in federal court also can be filed in state court. Any case that could be filed in federal court based on diversity of citizenship could be filed in state court. As a result, a plaintiff can decide whether federal or state court would be a better place to file the case. They might want to consider which location would be more convenient, which procedural rules would favor them, and which judges tend to be friendlier to their position.
There is not necessarily only one venue in which a plaintiff can bring a lawsuit. A plaintiff generally can sue in any judicial district in which the defendant resides or does business, or in any district in which the events that led to the lawsuit occurred. For example, a car crash victim could sue in the district in which the crash happened, or a small business could sue another business for breach of contract in the district in which the owners of the businesses signed the contract. Sometimes a defendant will object to the plaintiff’s choice of venue if it is far from their location.