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Law School Case Brief

Pennington v. Fourth Nat'l Bank - 243 U.S. 269, 37 S. Ct. 282 (1917)


The Fourteenth Amendment does not, in guaranteeing due process of law, abridge the jurisdiction which a state possesses over property within its borders, regardless of the residence or presence of the owner. That jurisdiction extends alike to tangible and to intangible property. Indebtedness due from a resident to a non-resident of which bank deposits are an example is property within the state.


A wife obtained a divorce in an Ohio state court. She sought alimony and joined the bank as a defendant because that is where her husband kept his money. When the claim was filed, the trial court entered a preliminary order that enjoined the bank from paying out any part of the deposit. The husband then presented a check to the bank for the full amount of the deposit and asserted that the trial court's order deprived him of his property without due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, and was void because he was a non-resident of Ohio, had not been personally served with process within the State, had not voluntarily appeared in the suit, and had been served by publication only, all of which the bank knew. The bank refused payment on the check. Plaintiff husband brought a claim in a state court of Ohio against defendant bank for the amount of money he had on deposit with the bank. The Supreme Court of Ohio affirmed a decision by the appellate court, which affirmed the trial court judgment in favor of the bank. Plaintiff husband sought further review in the United States Supreme Court.


Was plaintiff non-resident husband denied due process where his alimony obligations was served only by publication?




The wife was a creditor and that an injunction issued against a resident debtor of a non-resident defendant was a sufficient seizure of the husband's property to give jurisdiction. The main ground for the contention is this: In ordinary garnishment proceedings the obligation enforced is a debt existing at the commencement of the action, whereas the obligation to pay alimony arises only as a result of the suit. The distinction is, in this connection, without legal significance. The power of the State to proceed against the property of an absent defendant is the same whether the obligation sought to be enforced is an admitted indebtedness or a contested claim. It is the same whether the claim is liquidated or is unliquidated, like a claim for damages in contract or in tort.  It is likewise immaterial that the claim is at the commencement of the suit inchoate, to be perfected only by time or the action of the court. The only essentials to the exercise of the State's power are presence of the res within its borders, its seizure at the commencement of proceedings, and the opportunity of the owner to be heard. Where these essentials exist a decree for alimony against an absent defendant will be valid under the same circumstances and to the same extent as if the judgment were on a debt -- that is, it will be valid not in personam, but as a charge to be satisfied out of the property seized. 

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