Wednesday, August 01, 2007

consumer - foreign judgment - full faith and credit - due process

Frontier Leasing Corporation v. Shah - Superior Court - July 30, 2007

Pennsylvania court stuck down a default Iowa judgment entered against defendant Shah on due process grounds.

The contractual forum selection clause purported to give Polk County, Iowa, jurisdiction. A judgment was entered against Shah, who had leased an ATM machine fromm a 3rd party lessor who in turn assigned its rights to Frontier Leasing. Shah admittedly defaulted on the lease. Frontier then tried to execute on the judgment in Allegheny County, where defendant was located. Defendant filed a motion to strike the judgment.

Full faith and credit under Article IV, sec. 1 of the US Constitution cannot be granted unless the sister state court that entered the judgment had personal jurisdiction over the defendant, who must have been afforded due process. Personal jurisdiction can be established by consent, in which case the minimum contacts requirement under International Shoe, 326 US 310 (1945), is not applicable. In addition, personal jurisdiction can be waived.

The court looked at Iowa law to determine these issues. Under Iowa law (and Pennsylvania law), forum selection clauses (FSC) are presumptively enforceable. The presumption can be rebutted by showing that the FSC is not reasonable, under the circumstances. To do so, a defendant must make a "strong showing" that the judgment should be set aside.

Some factors in this determination are
- whether there was an arm's length (what length sleeve?) transaction
- relative sophistiction of the parties (experienced and sophisticated businessmen?)
- whether enforcement would be unreasonable or unjust in the circumstances
- whether there was fraud of overreaching
- whether enforcement would make things so gravely difficult for Defendant that he would effectively be deprived of his day in court

In this case Defendant was a Pakistani immigrant with a limited command of English. The FSC did not mention the terms "jurisdiction," or "venue" or "service of process." It only said that a suit would be "proper" if brought in Iowa courts. The FSC language was not in bold type and was contained in the midst of boilerplate language, "inconspicuous even to the trained eye." The court had "no doubt that appellant had no idea what the import of this clause was…." The court decided that "if there is anything substantive to the notion that forum selection clauses should be vitiated if unreasonable, this is the case in which to apply that notion. Accordingly, we conclude the forum selection clause is unenforceable under Iowa law."

This would seem to resolve the case, Nonetheless, the court went on to consider whether Iowa's assumption of jurisdiction was proper, under Iowa law, applying a two-part test. The first part was satisfied by the presumption of jurisdiction based on the contractual FSC. The second part, however, was not. It involved several factors concerning the general notion of minimum contacts, including quantity, nature and quality, source and connection with the cause of action, etc. Here, defendant's only contact with Iowa was a "single tangential contact" -- that he executed a contract that provided that the lessor would render performance in Iowa. This contact was "accidental" and it is "doubtful that appellant had an understanding that this contact could result in his being hailed to Iowa to answer for default. It was a single fortuitous contact, insufficient to give Iowa jurisdiction under its own law."

The court held that the FSC was "not only unforceable but also is insufficient, in and of itself, to confer jurisdiction on the Iowa courts under the due process clause of the Fourteenth amendment. In the end analysis, we simply have not been psersuaded that appellant was afforded "fair warning" that he could be forced to travel to Iowa to answer for an alleged default of the lease."