Action in rem is a type of legal proceeding used to decide a property's title, as well as the rights granted to parties listed in the title.

Legal Definition of Action in Rem

When there is a dispute related to a property title and the rights related to the title, the court will use action in rem to resolve the dispute. This action determines the property title and its rights both for the parties in the case and any party that could claim a property interest in the future. Action in rem determines conclusive rights to a piece of property.

Action in rem can decide both personal and real property rights, and in many cases, a debtor will bring this action against a piece of property in order to retrieve monies owed to them. Other reasons for using action in rem include:

  • Partitioning real property.
  • Foreclosing on a mortgage.
  • Enforcing a lien.

A court can only allow action in rem if the court's jurisdiction covers the property or if it has direct authority. Action in rem cases can only take place in the jurisdiction of the property's actual location. Additionally, the judgement will not be against the owner of the property, only the property itself.

Before the court can exercise its jurisdiction, all parties that have a property interest should receive an alert to the action in rem proceedings so that they have the opportunity to make a claim.

The Action in Rem

The term action in rem originates in Roman law. Basically, action in rem is a type of lawsuit brought against a piece of property itself instead of the owner of a property.

For instance, a party could bring an action in rem case against a ship or its cargo instead of the owner of the vessel. An action in personam would be a case brought against the owner of the property. Action in rem can be very effective when someone has a legitimate claim against a piece of property.

Proceedings in Admiralty

Action in rem is closely related to maritime law. Generally, these actions involve a maritime privilege or a lien placed against a vessel. These actions, however, can also involve liens placed against the cargo in a ship.

A complicated issue is whether the action takes place in rem or in personam. It's common for admiralty proceedings to be in personam, meaning the owner of the property is sued. The person bringing the lawsuit does have the right to choose whether they will sue in personam or in rem. In some circumstances, a proceeding will include both actions.

If necessary, an action in personam can be converted in an action in rem at a later time. An amendment would be necessary to convert an in rem proceeding to an in personam proceeding. This can happen without first obtaining the consent of the claimant or sending an additional service of process. Typically, a breach of maritime contract creates a lien, and the most effective solution for enforcing this lien is using action in rem.

There are several different types of claims that may be subject to action in rem:

  • Claims involving ship materials, repairs, and/or supplies.
  • General average claims.
  • Claims for seaman's wages.
  • Salvage claims.
  • Claims related to maritime tort, including personal injuries.

You must initiate an action in rem suit in the same location as the property involved. You would need to file a complaint if you are unable to find the property. Jurisdiction will only be granted once the property is found.

Federal courts in the United States generally have jurisdiction in matters of admiralty. A district court will only have jurisdiction for an action in rem case if the property in question is physically located within the court's territory upon initiation of the action. If someone has a lien against a ship, or the cargo inside of the ship, the vessel can be arrested to enforce the lien. The court in the district where the vessel was arrested will have jurisdiction over the case. Remember, before an action in rem can be initiated, there must be a maritime lien in place.

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