Coming Soon - The Jurisdictional Implications of Social Media Posts

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In the second significant order to come off the civil side of the California Supreme Court’s docket in the wake of Wednesday’s conference, the Court entered a “grant-and-transfer” order in Burdick v. Superior Court (Sanderson), granting the petition for review and shipping the case back to the Fourth Appellate District, Division Three. Ordinarily, G&T orders don’t attract all that much attention on the order list, but Burdick is significant as a potential signal of issues likely to reach the Court in the next year or two. According to the Court’s docket, its order instructed the Court of Appeal to “vacate its order denying mandate and to issue an order to show cause why the relief sought in the petition should not be granted in light of Walden v. Fiore.” The Court’s order was unanimous.

Burdick is a defamation claim brought by California residents against a competitor as a result of a Facebook post. The defendant challenged personal jurisdiction for lack of minimum contacts with California, but the trial court refused to quash service.

Although some G&T orders involve the straightforward application of new and controlling authority from either the state or federal Supreme Courts, Burdick is worthy of attention because Walden isn’t a social media case. So whatever the Court of Appeal decides, it will be breaking new ground. It’s worth reviewing Walden in some detail to understand its possible application to the social media questions involved in Burdick.

Walden arose when the respondents were searched by DEA agents at an airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico. When the agents found $97,000 in cash on the respondents, the respondents explained that they were professional gamblers – the money was their “bank” and winnings. The agents released the respondents to fly to Atlanta, but notified a DEA task force waiting at the Atlanta airport that the respondents were coming. As the respondents waited for a connecting flight from Atlanta to Las Vegas, the petitioner – a police officer working as a deputized agent of the DEA -- approached, briefly questioned them, and ultimately seized the cash.

On two occasions in the month that followed, the petitioner received documentation from the respondents’ attorney regarding the legitimacy of the money. Nevertheless, the petitioner helped draft an affidavit in support of an action for forfeiture of the funds. According to the respondents, the affidavit misrepresented the parties’ encounter at the airport and omitted exculpatory information. In any event, no forfeiture complaint was ever filed, and the money was returned seven months after it was taken. The respondents filed a Bivens suit against the petitioner in Nevada, alleging that the search, seizure and affidavit violated their Fourth Amendment rights.

The district court tossed the case for lack of personal jurisdiction in Nevada, but a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit reversed.

The Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Ninth Circuit. Like many plaintiffs, the plaintiffs in Walden pointed to the petitioner’s interactions with them as the petitioner’s “minimum contacts” with the forum. But “minimum contacts” analysis “looks to the defendant’s contacts with the forum State itself,” the Court pointed out, “not the defendant’s contacts with persons who reside there . . . the plaintiff cannot be the only link between the defendant and the forum . . . a defendant’s relationship with a plaintiff or third party, standing alone, is an insufficient basis for jurisdiction.”

The Walden Court addressed the landmark personal jurisdiction case Calder v. Jones in some detail. In Calder, the tabloid defendant, based in Florida, wrote an allegedly libelous story about a California resident. The Supreme Court ultimately upheld jurisdiction. But that was because of the defendant’s contacts with the forum, not merely with the California-based plaintiff, the Walden court noted: the defendant had reached out to “California sources” for the article; the article related to alleged activities in California; any reputational injury and damages had been suffered in California.

There was nothing analogous in Walden, the Court found. The petitioner officer had never traveled to, conducted activities within, contacted anyone in, or sent anything or anyone to Nevada. The mere fact that he had allegedly directed activities towards individuals he knew resided there wasn’t enough. Nor was the fact that the respondents happened to be in Nevada when they wanted to use the seized money and thereby suffered their damages enough. No minimum contacts – no jurisdiction.

One footnote in Walden stands out in view of the California Supreme Court’s action in Burdick. The Walden respondents argued that if the Court failed to find minimum contacts, it might be impossible for plaintiffs to act against persons committing frauds through the internet. “[T]his case does not present the very different questions whether and how a defendant’s virtual ‘presence’ and conduct translate into ‘contacts’ with a particular State. To the contrary, there is no question where the conduct giving rise to this litigation took place . . . We leave questions about virtual contacts for another day.”

For the Fourth District – and perhaps within the next year or two, for the California Supreme Court – that day will soon come.

The California Supreme Court’s order in Burdick probably shouldn’t be read to indicate that the Court has already decided that Walden necessarily means that there can never be jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant in an internet tort case. But it does show that the Court views Walden as a useful framework for addressing those issues. And given the Walden Court’s emphasis on contacts with the state, not merely the plaintiff – and its specific comment that jurisdiction can’t rest merely on the plaintiff’s injuries suffered in the forum – plaintiffs in such internet cases will face significant barriers to establishing personal jurisdiction in their home forums.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Joel Kramer.

Topics:  Jurisdiction, Social Media

Published In: Business Torts Updates, Civil Procedure Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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