The Cases We Read: Pennoyer v. Neff

What comes to mind when you hear the words, “personal jurisdiction”?

Fear? Loathing? Confusion because you’re a 1L or prospective student who has no idea what this is?

One of the things that fascinated me most when I came to law school was the fact that here we are in the 21st century and we’re still studying cases from close to 200 years ago. Frankly, I was rather annoyed when I realized this—was I supposed to have come into law school with the word “forsooth” as part of my working lexicon? 

We’re told over and over how the law is ever changing, how what we learn today may be of no use to us tomorrow … and yet I and almost everyone who has gone to law school since the 1878 Supreme Court case Pennoyer v. Neff was decided have read it to learn about personal jurisdiction.

So for all of you who haven’t read the case or are looking to take a walk down memory lane, let me set the stage for you.

Meet Marcus Neff, a guy we don’t know much about except that he was was smart enough to retain a lawyer to help him buy land in Oregon but wasn’t too eager to pay for the services. Enter John H. Mitchell, the attorney who made the decision to take Mr. Neff on as a client (and probably very much regretted it afterward). When his client started avoiding his calls (or, telegrams, I suppose—whatever they used to communicate in the 1860s), Mr. Mitchell realized he wasn’t going to see a dime unless he got the courts involved.

So that’s how this starts: as a simple squabble over legal fees. The problem was, even though Mr. Mitchell lived in Oregon, Mr. Neff did not.

Here lies the central question of personal jurisdiction: When you need to sue a person or a company, what state are you allowed to sue them in? Even back in the 1860s, this was a problem, especially when your legal adversary could merely skedaddle over the border to California (like Mr. Neff did) and evade justice. It makes you wonder how many other lawyers Mr. Neff had tried to scam this way. Although, we also don’t know if Mr. Mitchell was trying to shaft him with a price tag that was much higher than what they’d originally agreed upon. Either way, their legal bout didn’t exactly have a venue that seemed obvious.

That certainly didn’t stop Mr. Mitchell. He took Mr. Neff to court in Oregon, and didn’t even tell him about the lawsuit. I mean, maybe we give Mr. Mitchell the benefit of the doubt here because he did publish in a newspaper that he was suing Mr. Neff. And we can assume he wanted to inform Mr. Neff, but since his last few carrier pigeons had gone unanswered, he figured why waste a good pigeon? The day of the suit came and (surprise, surprise) Mr. Neff didn’t show up, prompting the Oregon court to enter a default judgment against him in February of 1866. The trouble was, a default judgment doesn’t amount to much if the person isn’t there. So long as Mr. Neff didn’t go back to Oregon for anything, it was no skin off of his nose.

Mr. Mitchell, however, had an ace in the hole: Mr. Neff’s property. We’ll call it Neffland. In 1866, Neffland was worth about $15,000, or about $372,000 by today’s standards. Since Mr. Neff had purchased Neffland under the Donation Law of Oregon (a land grant enacted by Congress in the 1850s), the property wasn’t actually his at the time Mr. Mitchell got his judgment. As soon as the grant went through, five months later, Mr. Mitchell attached Neffland to the case for damages. He enlisted the local sheriff to seize Neffland and put it up for auction. Mr. Mitchell then purchased it from auction, then sold the land to Sylvester Pennoyer.

Which is very exciting news, if only for the reason that we have finally reached the guy who the case is named after.

Poor Mr. Pennoyer must have been quite surprised when Mr. Neff came back to Neffland and was like, “Hold on. Only Neffs are allowed in Neffland. What are you doing here?” (Which has to be how it happened, right?) And when Mr. Pennoyer insisted that he wasn’t squatting and had actually bought the land from Mr. Mitchell, Mr. Neff realized he couldn’t touch Mr. Mitchell.  At this point he decided to sue Pennoyer in federal court in 1874 to get the land back…and won.

In sum, the Supreme Court had quite a mess on its hands when it took on and ultimately decided the case in 1878.

Here is the main issue in the case: Did Oregon have personal jurisdiction over Mr. Neff at the time of the suit, and did it have right to seize Mr. Neff’s property?  In a word, no.

The resolution of the case, unfortunately, isn’t as juicy as its facts. Basically, the Court held that back in Mitchell v. Neff (the original dispute), Oregon had jurisdiction over Mr. Neff solely because of Neffland—a term that used to be referred to as quasi in rem jurisdiction in the days when lawyers loved speaking sporadically in Latin. However, it held that the land should have been attached at the start of the trial, not as an afterthought. Personal jurisdiction is all about fairness of venue and a defendant knowing that a lawsuit against him has commenced so that he can defend himself. If his property isn’t attached at the start of the suit and he isn’t within the state, how will he know that someone is attempting to take it away?

So Mr. Neff ultimately triumphed, and I guess Mr. Mitchell did too, seeing as he got Neffland and the money from the sale of it. But poor, poor Mr. Pennoyer, who was only tangentially related to the claim, found his land taken away without any faulty action on his part. (Although, fun fact, he went on to become the mayor of Portland and governor of Oregon, so he seemed to do pretty well for himself in spite of all of this.)

If you think this is terribly confusing, you join the ranks of everyone else who has ever read this case. The following YouTube clip might do a better job of explaining it.

All of this to answer the question: Why do we need to read a 200-year-old case to get this message? Wouldn’t a case from the past few years serve us better? Like, say, the one from my Cyberlaw class this week about where a website’s owner can be sued. (See? Personal jurisdiction never goes away.)

For law students, Pennoyer is one of the first cases you read in civil procedure that illustrates how complex the law is, how it turns on behavior and societal advancement, and how, hilarious, horrible, and human it can be.

The evolution of the law, I’ve found, is almost as important as the law itself. We need to know not only the status of things now, but why it is that way, and that requires a knowledge of what came before and how well that did (or didn’t) work out for us so we don’t make the same mistakes.

The Cases We Read is a new series profiling pivotal cases we read in the course of the school year. For anyone looking to get ahead or brush up on your personal jurisdiction education, you can read the full text of the case here.



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