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Federal Civil Court Jurisdiction

Personal Jurisdiction To obtain personal jurisdiction over the parties, a federal court follows the procedural rules of the state in which it sits. For example, a federal court in Michigan follows the Michigan state court rules governing personal jurisdiction. The court examines the usual factors in establishing personal jurisdiction, such as the physical location of the parties, the reach of the state's long-arm statute, any consent to personal jurisdiction by the defendant, or the location of real property in a dispute over real property.

Subject Matter Jurisdiction In some cases a plaintiff may file suit in federal court. These cases are limited to (1) claims arising from the U.S. Constitution or federal statutes (federal question jurisdiction), (2) claims brought by or against the federal government, and (3) claims in which all opposing parties live in different states and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000 (diversity jurisdiction). A federal court obtains subject matter jurisdiction over a case if the case meets one or more of these three requirements.

Claims arising from the U.S. Constitution or federal statutes Federal question jurisdiction is covered in 28 U.S.C.A. § 1331. This statute provides that federal district courts have "original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States." Some claims are expressly identified as federal in the Constitution. These claims include those involving AMBASSADORS AND CONSULS or public ministers, admiralty and maritime claims, and claims made by or against the federal government. Claims that are based on federal law also may be filed in federal court. An action against the federal government based on the NEGLIGENCE of a federal employee, for example, is authorized by the FEDERAL TORT CLAIMS ACT of 1946 (60 Stat. 842 [28 U.S.C.A. § 1346(b), 2674]).

The U.S. Supreme Court, in Holmes Group, Inc. v. Vornado Air Circulation Systems, Inc., 535 U.S. 826, 122 S. Ct. 1889, 153 L. Ed. 2d 13 (2002), issued a landmark decision on "arising under" jurisdiction of the federal courts. The case involved patent law litigation between two competitors, with the plaintiff filing a DECLARATORY JUDGMENT action in federal district court asking the court to declare that the plaintiff had not infringed the defendant's TRADE DRESS. This action was not based on a federal law but the defendant's counterclaim, in which it invoked federal patent law to allege patent infringement by the plaintiff, seemed to give the court "arising under" jurisdiction. The Court thought otherwise, ruling that the counterclaim did not confer federal jurisdiction and that the case must be dismissed. This decision limits the "arising under" jurisdiction of the federal courts and gives state courts the opportunity to hear copyright and patent actions (through a defendant's counterclaim) that have always been heard in the federal courts.

Some cases may combine federal and state issues. In such cases, no clear test exists to determine whether a party may file suit in or remove a suit to federal court. Generally, federal courts will decline jurisdiction if a claim is based predominantly on state law. For example, assume that a plaintiff is embroiled in a property dispute with a neighbor. The plaintiff files suit against the neighbor, alleging state-law claims of NUISANCE, TRESPASS, breach ofcontract, and assault. A state official advises the plaintiff that the property belongs to the neighbor (the defendant). If the plaintiff sues the state official in the same suit, alleging a constitutional violation such as the uncompensated taking of property, a federal court may refuse jurisdiction because the case involves predominantly state law.

Federal courts may decline jurisdiction on other grounds if a state court has concurrent jurisdiction. When they do so, they are said to abstain, because they are refraining from exercising their jurisdiction. Federal courts tend to abstain from cases that require the interpretation of state law, if state courts can decide those cases. Federal courts abstain in order to avoid answering unnecessary constitutional questions, to avoid conflict with state courts, and to avoid making errors in determining the meaning of state laws.

Claims brought by or against the federal government Generally, the United States may sue in federal court if its claim is based on federal law. For example, if the federal government seeks to seize the property of a defendant in a drug case, it must base the action on the federal FORFEITURE statute, not on the forfeiture statute of the state in which the property lies.

Generally, state and federal governments have SOVEREIGN IMMUNITY, which means that they may not be sued. However, state and federal governments may consent to suit. At the federal level, Congress has removed the government's IMMUNITY for injuries resulting from the negligent and, in some cases, intentional conduct of federal agencies, federal officers, and other federal employees (60 Stat. 842 [28 U.S.C.A. § 1346(b), 2674, 2680]). Generally, the federal government is liable only for injuries resulting from the performance of official government duties.

If Congress has not waived federal immunity to certain suits, a person nevertheless may file suit against the agents, officers, or employees personally. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that federal agents, officers, and employees who violate constitutional rights may be sued for damages in federal court (Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388, 91 S. Ct. 1999, 29 L. Ed. 2d 619 [1971]).

Claims in which all opposing parties live in different states and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000 Diversity cases provide federal courts with subject matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C.A. § 1332. A civil case qualifies as a federal diversity case if all opposing parties live in separate states and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000. If the opposing parties live in the same state, the case may still qualify for federal subject matter jurisdiction if there is some remaining citizenship diversity between parties. For example, assume that a person is acting as a stakeholder by holding property for a third party. If ownership of the property is in dispute, the stakeholder may join the defendants in the suit to avoid liability to any of the parties. Such a case may be filed in federal court if a defendant lives in a different state, even if one of the defendants lives in the same state as the stakeholder or in the same state as the other defendants.

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