Quasi in Rem: Attachment Proceedings.

If a defendant is neither domiciled nor present in a state, he cannot be served personally, and any judgment in money obtained against him would be unenforceable. This does not, however, prevent attachment of a defendant’s property within the state. The practice of allowing a state to attach a non-resident’s real and personal property situated within its borders to satisfy a debt or other claim by one of its citizens goes back to colonial times. Attachment is considered a form of in rem proceeding sometimes called “quasi in rem,” and under Pennoyer v. Neff976 an attachment could be implemented by obtaining a writ against the local property of the defendant and giving notice by publication.977 The judgement was then satisfied from the property attached, and if the attached property was insufficient to satisfy the claim, the plaintiff could go no further.978

This form of proceeding raised many questions. Of course, there were always instances in which it was fair to subject a person to suit on his property located in the forum state, such as where the property was related to the matter sued over.979 In others, the question was more disputed, as in the famous New York Court of Appeals case of Seider v. Roth,980 in which the property subject to attachment was the contractual obligation of the defendant’s insurance company to defend and pay the judgment. But, in Harris v. Balk,981 the facts of the case and the establishment of jurisdiction through quasi in rem proceedings raised the issue of fairness and territoriality. The claimant was a Maryland resident who was owed a debt by Balk, a North Carolina resident. The Marylander ascertained, apparently adventitiously, that Harris, a North Carolina resident who owed Balk an amount of money, was passing through Maryland, and the Marylander attached this debt. Balk had no notice of the action and a default judgment was entered, after which Harris paid over the judgment to the Marylander. When Balk later sued Harris in North Carolina to recover on his debt, Harris argued that he had been relieved of any further obligation by satisfying the judgment in Maryland, and the Supreme Court sustained his defense, ruling that jurisdiction had been properly obtained and the Maryland judgment was thus valid.982

Subsequently, Harris v. Balk was overruled by Shaffer v. Heitner,983 in which the Court rejected the Delaware state court’s jurisdiction, holding that the “minimum contacts” test of International Shoe applied to all in rem and quasi in rem actions. The case involved a Delaware sequestration statute under which plaintiffs were authorized to bring actions against nonresident defendants by attaching their “property” within Delaware, the property here consisting of shares of corporate stock and options to stock in the defendant corporation. The stock was considered to be in Delaware because that was the state of incorporation, but none of the certificates representing the seized stocks were physically present in Delaware. The reason for applying the same test as is applied in in personam cases, the Court said, “is simple and straightforward. It is premised on recognition that ‘[t]he phrase ‘judicial jurisdiction’ over a thing,’ is a customary elliptical way of referring to jurisdiction over the interests of persons in a thing.”984 Thus, “[t]he recognition leads to the conclusion that 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.’ ”985

A further tightening of jurisdictional standards occurred in Rush v. Savchuk.986 The plaintiff was injured in a one-car accident in Indiana while a passenger in a car driven by defendant. Plaintiff later moved to Minnesota and sued defendant, still resident in Indiana, in state court in Minnesota. There were no contacts between the defendant and Minnesota, but defendant’s insurance company did business there and plaintiff garnished the insurance contract, signed in Indiana, under which the company was obligated to defend defendant in litigation and indemnify him to the extent of the policy limits. The Court refused to permit jurisdiction to be grounded on the contract; the contacts justifying jurisdiction must be those of the defendant engaging in purposeful activity related to the forum.987 Rush thus resulted in the demise of the controversial Seider v. Roth doctrine, which lower courts had struggled to save after Shaffer v. Heitner.988


95 U.S. 714 (1878). Cf. Pennington v. Fourth Nat’l Bank, 243 U.S. 269, 271 (1917); Corn Exch. Bank v. Commissioner, 280 U.S. 218, 222 (1930); Endicott Co. v. Encyclopedia Press, 266 U.S. 285, 288 (1924). back
The theory was that property is always in possession of an owner, and that seizure of the property will inform him. This theory of notice was disavowed sooner than the theory of jurisdiction. See “Actions in Rem: Proceedings Against Property”, supra. back
Other, quasi in rem actions, which are directed against persons, but ultimately have property as the subject matter, such as probate, Goodrich v. Ferris, 214 U.S. 71, 80 (1909), and garnishment of foreign attachment proceedings, Pennington v. Fourth Nat’l Bank, 243 U.S. 269, 271 (1917); Harris v. Balk, 198 U.S. 215 (1905), might also be prosecuted to conclusion without requiring the presence of all parties in interest. The jurisdictional requirements for rendering a valid divorce decree are considered under the Full Faith and Credit Clause, Art. I, § 1. back
Atkinson v. Superior Court, 49 Cal. 2d 338, 316 P. 2d 960 (1957), appeal dismissed, 357 U.S. 569 (1958) (debt seized in California was owed to a New Yorker, but it had arisen out of transactions in California involving the New Yorker and the California plaintiff). back
17 N.Y. 2d 111, 269 N.Y.S. 2d 99, 216 N.E. 2d 312 (1966). back
198 U.S. 215 (1905). back
Compare New York Life Ins. Co. v. Dunlevy, 241 U.S. 518 (1916) (action purportedly against property within state, proceeds of an insurance policy, was really an in personam action against claimant and, claimant not having been served, the judgment is void). But see Western Union Tel. Co. v. Pennsylvania, 368 U.S. 71 (1961). back
433 U.S. 186 (1977). back
433 U.S. at 207 (internal quotation from RESTATEMENT (SECOND
) OF CONFLICT OF LAWS 56, Introductory Note (1971)).
433 U.S. at 207. The characterization of actions in rem as being not actions against a res but against persons with interests merely reflects Justice Holmes’ insight in Tyler v. Judges of the Court of Registration, 175 Mass. 71, 76–77, 55 N.E., 812, 814, appeal dismissed, 179 U.S. 405 (1900). back
444 U.S. 320 (1980). back
444 U.S. at 328–30. In dissent, Justices Brennan and Stevens argued that what the state courts had done was the functional equivalent of direct-action statutes. Id. at 333 (Justice Stevens); World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286, 299 (1980) (Justice Brennan). The Court, however, refused so to view the Minnesota garnishment action, saying that “[t]he State’s ability to exert its power over the ‘nominal defendant’ is analytically prerequisite to the insurer’s entry into the case as a garnishee.” Id. at 330–31. Presumably, the comment is not meant to undermine the validity of such direct-action statutes, which was upheld in Watson v. Employers Liability Assurance Corp., 348 U.S. 66 (1954), a choice-of-law case rather than a jurisdiction case. back
See O’Conner v. Lee-Hy Paving Corp., 579 F.2d 194 (2d Cir. 1978), cert. denied, 439 U.S. 1034 (1978). back