Personal Jurisdiction by New Jersey State Courts Over Out-of-State Counsel Admitted Pro Hac Vice in New Jersey Federal Court

Zahl v. Eastland, 465 N.J. Super. 79 (App. Div. 2020). [Disclosure: I have represented the defendants in this matter.] Judge Messano’s opinion for the Appellate Division in this case today is the second time that this case came before the Appellate Division. As discussed here, the prior opinion reversed a seven-figure default judgment against defendants, a Mississippi attorney and his law firm, and remanded the case for further proceedings, including as to whether New Jersey state courts had personal jurisdiction over any of the defendants.

Today’s opinion addresses an important issue: when, if at all, does a New Jersey state court have personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state attorney who is admitted pro hac vice in New Jersey federal court? Under Local Civil Rule 101.1(c) of the District of New Jersey, an attorney admitted pro hac vice in New Jersey federal court subjects himself or herself only to “the disciplinary jurisdiction of [the District] Court.” Such an attorney is not thereby subject to jurisdiction (even in federal court, let alone in state court, where that attorney has not appeared) for claims such as those in today’s case: alleged improper billing and legal malpractice claims brought by a former client who had paid the attorneys’ bills in full, without objection, until the federal case was lost, when plaintiff sought a scapegoat for that loss.

The narrow, disciplinary jurisdiction, in federal court only, to which the attorneys in today’s case were bound contrasts sharply with the jurisdiction to which pro hac vice counsel in New Jersey state court are subject. New Jersey’s pro hac vice rule, Rule 1:21-2(c)(2), subjects pro hac vice counsel to jurisdiction “for all actions against the attorney or the attorney’s firm that may arise out of the attorney’s participation in the matter.” Though the District of New Jersey’s Local Civil Rules incorporate some specific New Jersey Court Rules, the Local Civil Rules pointedly do not incorporate the broad jurisdictional parameters of Rule 1:21-2(c)(2) or subject pro hac vice counsel to state court proceedings.

Despite that, and even though, as the Appellate Division’s opinion discusses at length, there is conflicting caselaw as to whether and when pro hac vice counsel are subject to jurisdiction, the Appellate Division found that there was jurisdiction over the Mississippi attorney and firm involved here. The panel’s opinion then went on to hold that “fair play and substantial justice” did not call for the court to refrain from exercising jurisdiction over defendants either. The Appellate Division thus affirmed the ruling of the Law Division that denied defendants’ motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction over any defendant.