Many litigators take for granted that the axiomatic principles of personal jurisdiction we learned in law school remain the same today.  In fact, the legal evolution of personal jurisdiction displays a sort of punctuated equilibrium (to borrow a theory from evolutionary biology) in which the law remains in a prolonged stasis for much of its history, but occasionally experiences rapid change.  If you blinked, recently, perhaps you missed it.

In the last few months, the Supreme Court resolved two important personal jurisdiction cases; one about general or “all purpose” jurisdiction, which permits a court to assert jurisdiction over a defendant based on a connection with the forum that is unrelated to the underlying suit, and the other about specific or “case-linked” jurisdiction, which depends on a connection with the forum that is related to the controversy.

The first decision, Daimler AG v. Bauman, has garnered much attention for significantly curtailing the scope of general personal jurisdiction.  The decision builds on the Court’s earlier 2011 Goodyear decision.  Much has been written about those decisions elsewhere.  Suffice it to say that if you thought general jurisdiction required that a defendant had “continuous and systematic” presence in the forum, think again.  The Court made clear in Daimler that this is the test for specific personal jurisdiction (though a single act may still be enough), and that general jurisdiction only exists where the defendant’s presence is so substantial that it is “essentially at home” in the forum.  These decisions effectively rewrote the law of presence jurisdiction.  For a good overview, see Daimler AG v. Bauman: Supreme Court Rewrites the Law of Presence Jurisdiction”.

The second, and more recent case, Walden v. Fiore, has not received as much attention, but that case addressed the issue of specific personal jurisdiction, and similarly curtailed it.  Even though Walden does not represent the same dramatic shift in the law, it further limited specific jurisdiction to rein in some courts that may have otherwise taken an expansive view of foreseeability when determining whether a defendant expressly aimed conduct at the forum.

The facts of the case are fairly simple.  Two professional gamblers, Fiore and Gipson, traveling to Las Vegas, were stopped midway through their trip at an Atlanta airport by Walden, a DEA agent.  The agent seized $97,000 in cash after an alert from a drug-detection dog.  The government eventually returned the cash to the gamblers because the U.S. Attorney determined that there was no probable cause for the search and seizure.  Fiore and Gipson sued Walden in Nevada, alleging that Walden violated their Fourth Amendment rights.  The district court dismissed the case for lack of personal jurisdiction, but the Ninth Circuit reversed.  The Ninth Circuit found that there was specific personal jurisdiction over the Georgia officer in Nevada because the officer “expressly aimed” a false probable cause affidavit at Nevada by “submitting [it] with knowledge that it would affect persons with ‘significant connection’ to Nevada.”  Slip. op. 4.

In a 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit and held that the Nevada court lacked personal jurisdiction over the Georgia officer because it was undisputed that the officer had made no contacts with Nevada.  The Court rejected the Ninth Circuit’s effort to shift the focus to the officer’s “knowledge of respondents’ ‘strong forum connections’” and also rejected its view that such “knowledge, combined with its conclusion that respondents suffered foreseeable harm in Nevada, satisfied the ‘minimum contacts’ inquiry.”  Slip. op. 11.  The Court held that the officer’s “actions in Georgia did not create sufficient contacts with Nevada simply because he allegedly directed his conduct at plaintiffs whom he knew had Nevada connections.”  Slip. op. 12.

In reversing the Ninth Circuit, the Court examined, and largely reaffirmed, settled precedent holding that for specific personal jurisdiction to exist: 1) the defendant, itself, must create a relationship with the forum; 2) the defendant must have contact with the forum, not merely contact with persons who reside there; and 3) the unilateral activity of a third party who has contact with the forum, standing alone, is insufficient.

The Court did, however, significantly limit (or, at least, clarify) its prior holding in Calder v. Jones (in which it established an “effects” test for intentional torts), by explaining that the “proper question is not where the plaintiff experienced a particular injury or effect but whether the defendant’s conduct connects him to the forum in a meaningful way.”  Slip. op. 12.  That line may be a blurry one, but the Court nevertheless drew it.

Though the facts above may seem unique, the Court’s decision will likely be cited in support of motions to dismiss in a wide variety of analogous fact patterns.  For example, plaintiffs sometimes argue that outside professionals (lawyers, advisors, and auditors, to name a few) can be subject to specific personal jurisdiction in a given forum simply because they performed work that they knew might ultimately reach forum residents, even if the professional did the work outside the forum for an out-of-state client.  Walden will make such arguments much harder, if not impossible, to make.  (The Walden court expressly did not decide the thornier issue of “virtual contacts” flowing from internet-related activities, saving that question for another day).

The Bottom Line

To the extent it wasn’t already clear, plaintiffs will now need to allege specific contacts between a defendant and the forum itself—either acts committed in that forum state by the defendant, or at least evidence that the defendant intentionally availed itself of the forum—and will not be able to subject a defendant to jurisdiction merely by arguing that the defendant knew or could foresee that the plaintiff resided or suffered injury in the forum.

These recent cases undoubtedly will make it more difficult for plaintiffs to bring a litigation in a forum that they deem advantageous unless the defendant has some meaningful connection to that forum.  It may be too soon to tell whether we are experiencing another International Shoe moment, but much like the “minimum contacts” doctrine replaced and expanded upon the traditional “presence” doctrine of Pennoyer v. Neff, this could be another significant course correction—now to narrow the reach of personal jurisdiction—and careful practitioners should be prepared for choppy waters.  With a nod to Thoreau, Walden forces us to connect the dots in a new question: where I sued and what I sued for.


(Note: This material is intended for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.)