One of the universal requirements of a lawsuit is a dispute between at least two parties. Different jurisdictions have different requirements for the circumstances of how lawsuits must be brought, but lawsuits everywhere are between feuding parties. Most of the time these parties are people or businesses. Sometimes, one party is a thing: a piece of property, like land, or an intangible entity like a marriage. When property owners cannot be located, a party can file a suit against the property itself. This kind of lawsuit is called a lawsuit “in rem.”
The phrase in rem is one of many Latin phrases that has made its way into the common lexicon of legal phrases. It is translated as “in a thing,” and means that the court is treating the property itself as the defendant. The availability of in rem actions depends on jurisdiction, but most of the time requires a showing that the property owner cannot reasonably be located, and that the plaintiff stands to suffer injury unless the court goes ahead and rends a judgment anyway.
Most in rem actions are against property. This kind of property lawsuit is common when a title is in dispute, for instance, or if a property is somehow deemed hazardous or has caused injury. A court can decide to proceed against the property as if it were a party. Such a case would be named something like “Jane Doe v. 123 Main Street,” where 123 Main Street is the property in dispute.
Any property can be subject to an in rem action. Land tends to be the most commonly named defendant, but other real property, such as boats and airplanes, can also be named. Some inanimate objects like a marriage can qualify, usually when one spouse wants a divorce or dissolution and the other is completely out of contact. Increasingly, too, domain names are named as defendants. Domain names are Internet addresses, and are the pages on which websites are located.
Domain names that are made up of trademarked terms, or that support web pages selling counterfeit goods, are frequently sued for infringement and other damages. Almost anyone can purchase a domain name from one of many global domain registrars. Different registrars have different standards for recording and verifying the personal information of registrants, and tracking down the owner of any specific domain name all too often proves very difficult. If the damage being wrought by the domain name is serious enough, a court may grant in rem jurisdiction over the matter if the owner cannot be identified within a reasonable amount of time.
In rem actions are different from typical two-party actions, known as in personam actions. In personam cases proceed by trial, with each side providing testimony and, often, presenting witnesses. Obviously, property cannot testify on its own behalf. In rem cases are thus usually quicker, with the court considering all facts and issuing a binding judgment. The judgment can order title transferred, place a lien or force a sale, order a dissolution of marriage or, in the case of a domain name, order cancellation.
Another difference between in rem and in personam actions is jurisdiction. Most of the time, jurisdiction is based on a calculus of minimum contacts. In an in rem case, jurisdiction is dictated by where the property is physically located. The case must usually be filed in this jurisdiction in order to proceed. Jurisdiction is easily discerned for real property. Intangible property is not usually so simple. Most of the time, marriages are deemed located, for jurisdictional purposes, where the marriage took place. Domain names are usually found to sit where their registry operator sits. Where any alleged injury took place is not as important as where the property is located.