The Law School Authority

Kulko v. Superior Court

Summary of Kulko v. Superior Court

Citation:  436 U.S. 84 (1978)

Relevant Facts:  Appellant Ezra Kulko married his wife, Sharon Kulko Horn, in California in 1959 during a brief stop-over en route to a military duty station overseas.  At the time of their marriage, both were domiciliaries of the State of New York.  The couple separate in 1972, formalized by a separation agreement in the State of New York whereby the children would live with their father during the school year but with their mother during holidays and vacations.  Appellee, Sharon Kulko Horn, also the real party in interest in the underlying matter, moved to California following execution of the separation agreement.  The following year, Appellee obtained a divorce in Haiti that incorporated the terms of the separation agreement.  Appellee Sharon Kulko Horn then sought to domesticate the Haitian judgment in California, followed by an attempt to modify the terms of the custody agreement and secure full custody of the couple’s children and increase Appellant, Ezra Kulko’s, child support responsibilities.  Appellant challenged California’s exercise of personal jurisdiction over him, claiming he lacked sufficient minimum contacts to confer jurisdiction.  The Superior Court disagreed, and the California Supreme Court affirmed.  Appellant then sought review before the Supreme Court against the Superior Court, seeking to challenge their claim of jurisdiction.

Issue:  Does the act of sending a minor child into another state constitute a sufficient minimum contact, or alternatively create a sufficient effect, such that exercise of personal jurisdiction is proper consistent with the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Holding:  No, the mere fact of sending a child to reside in another state with his mother does not create the expectation of corresponding benefits of the California courts sufficient to create personal jurisdiction.  Under the circumstances, the exercise of personal jurisdiction violates due process.

Reasoning:  Justice Marshall, writing for the Court, first explained the requirements for a state to exercise personal jurisdiction.  Under the traditional test, in order to be bound by a judgment, a defendant must have traditional minimum contacts with the forum State, ensuring that prosecution of the suit against him does not offend fair play and substantial justice.  Next, the Court explained that the defendant’s contacts with the forum State here were limited to the passive act of acquiescing to his wife’s desire that their children be sent to live with her in California during her time with them under the custody agreement.  Acquiescence alone, and sending a child to the forum State, is insufficient to warrant the exercise of jurisdiction over a defendant.  Next, the Court explained that the defendant did not derive financial benefit from his daughter being in California with her mother; rather, they concluded that any financial gains were the result of his daughter’s absence from New York- and her mother’s failure to seek additional child support their- rather than presence in another jurisdiction.  The Court also explained that California courts had erred in applying the “effects test” to assert personal jurisdiction.  That standard, according to the Court, is appropriate in cases where a personal injury results in the forum State based on the purposeful decision to send persons or property there.  Application of the effects test to a custody dispute is inappropriate.  Finally, the Court explained that New York was the proper forum for this case, whatever the merits of the underlying dispute.  Justice Marshall also pointed out that the plaintiff had additional means at her disposal, using the California court system, to seek a remedy in such a way that did not violate the due process rights of the defendant through improper assertion of personal jurisdiction.

Dissent:  Justice Brennan, joined by Justices Powell and White, dissented.  In a brief opinion, Justice Brennan argued that the Appellants contacts with California, while minimal, were sufficient to warrant exercise of jurisdiction.  Citing prior cases, he argued that the assertion of jurisdiction did not offend traditional notions of “fair play and substantial justice.”  While admitting the case was a close one, he concluded that the facts suggested jurisdiction was both appropriate and constitutional.

Conclusion:  The Court reiterated the necessity of traditional minimal contacts to properly assert personal jurisdiction, clarifying that the effects test was inappropriate in this case and that a defendant’s passive acquiescence in sending a child into another State to live with her mother is insufficient to invoke jurisdiction.

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