Not Too Specific: Personal Jurisdiction After Ford Motor Co. v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court

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The Supreme Court’s latest personal jurisdiction opinion – Ford Motor Co. v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court – seems to raise more questions than answers regarding the contours of specific jurisdiction. A curious result, given the eight-member panel 1 unanimously agreed that Ford was subject to specific jurisdiction in the forums – Montana and Minnesota – where the underlying suits were filed.

Writing for the five-member majority, Justice Kagan reached this conclusion by recognizing that specific jurisdiction may exist where a defendant’s extensive activity is “related to” the plaintiff’s claims, even if not the but-for cause. The concurring opinions heavily criticized the majority’s “new test,” lamenting that the majority offered lower courts and litigants little guidance for discerning the limits of “related to” specific jurisdiction.

Here, we analyze the Court’s opinion and its practical impact on personal jurisdiction litigation moving forward.

I. A Personal Jurisdiction Primer

Before jumping into the deep end, a brief review of personal jurisdictions basics is in order. As a matter of due process, a court must possess personal jurisdiction over a defendant before it may determine that defendant’s rights and liabilities. In the landmark case of International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310 (1945), the Supreme Court proclaimed that personal jurisdiction requires that a defendant have “minimum contacts” with the forum state. Since International Shoe, the Court has identified two types of personal jurisdiction—general and specific—and expounded on the “minimum contacts” requirement for each. Specific jurisdiction exists where the claims against the defendant arise out of or relate to the defendant’s contacts with the state. General jurisdiction, on the other hand, is established when the defendant has continuous and systematic contacts with the state, such that the defendant is “at home” in the state. A corporation is subject to general jurisdiction where it is incorporated, maintains its principal place of business, and wherever its operations are so substantial that the corporation is deemed “at home.” Unlike general jurisdiction, the existence of specific jurisdiction requires a more extensive analysis of the plaintiff’s claims and how they relate to the defendant’s contacts with the forum.

II. Case Overview

Ford was sued in separate product liability lawsuits in Montana and Minnesota. Although the plaintiffs were residents of and injured in these states, the Ford vehicles at issue were originally sold in other jurisdictions to other individuals. General jurisdiction was not at issue, and Ford argued specific jurisdiction was lacking because it neither sold nor designed the vehicles in Montana or Minnesota. While Ford acknowledged its significant contacts with each state – marketing, dealerships, servicing of vehicles, sales of replacement parts, to name a few – Ford argued that, because these activities did not “give rise” to the plaintiffs’ product liability claims, specific jurisdiction could not be exercised.

The majority rejected Ford’s “causation-only” approach to specific jurisdiction:

None of our precedents has suggested that only a strict causal relationship between the defendant’s in-state activity and the litigation will do. … [O]ur most common formulation of the [specific jurisdiction] rule demands that the suit arise out of or relate to the defendant's contacts with the forum. The first half of that standard asks about causation; but the back half, after the “or,” contemplates that some relationships will support jurisdiction without a causal showing. That does not mean anything goes. In the sphere of specific jurisdiction, the phrase “relate to” incorporates real limits, as it must to adequately protect defendants foreign to a forum.

141 S. Ct. 1017, 1026 (2021) (cleaned up; emphasis in original). In this case, the majority found that Ford’s “veritable truckload of contacts with Montana and Minnesota” – including extensively promoting, selling and servicing the allegedly defective vehicle models at issue – supplied a sufficient nexus between the litigation and the forums to permit the exercise of specific personal jurisdiction over Ford. Id. at 1031-33.

Justice Alito wrote a concurring opinion to “quibble” with the majority’s “new gloss” on specific jurisdiction case law, namely, the recognition of “a new category of cases in which personal jurisdiction is permitted: those in which the claims do not ‘arise out of’ (i.e., are not caused by) the defendant’s contacts but nevertheless sufficiently ‘relate to’ those contacts in some undefined away.” Id. at 1033. Justice Alito explained that these phrases did not create separate groups for jurisdiction, but simply expressed “the basic ‘minimum contacts’ standard adopted in International Shoe.” Id. Moreover, despite the majority’s assurance that the “relate to” brand of specific jurisdiction “incorporates real limits,” Justice Alito predicted that lower courts will struggle identifying those boundaries, which are more clearly established by a “rough causal connection” prescribed by prior case law. Id. at 1033-34.

Justice Gorsuch, in his concurring opinion, expressed equal concern over the amorphous “relate to” test and lack of “meaningful guidance” as to what, among “virtually infinite” permutations of contacts with a forum, will suffice. Id. 1034-35. Justice Gorsuch explained that the majority’s “new test” unnecessarily risks “adding new layers of confusion to our personal jurisdiction jurisprudence.” Id. at 1035.

III. Practical Impact

While scholars may debate whether Ford has broken new ground or merely recognized a category of specific jurisdiction that has existed since International Shoe, one thing is clear: the majority’s opinion will inspire new and creative efforts by plaintiffs to haul corporations into unfavorable forums. Even before Ford, corporations knew that, to limit or eliminate their exposure to unfavorable forums, they needed to reduce or eliminate purposeful contacts with those forums. Ford does not materially alter that analysis. Rather, by allowing specific personal jurisdiction to be exercised wherever the corporation has “extensive” contacts that somehow “relate to” the plaintiff’s claims, Ford gives plaintiffs greater leeway to forum shop wherever the corporation does business. Ultimately, Ford seems to lower the bar for establishing specific jurisdiction.

Corporations with multi-state operations – particularly marketing and sales – should prepare for a surge in filings in the “worst” jurisdiction where they operate. Undoubtedly, a certain percentage of those filings that would have flunked a pre-Ford personal jurisdiction challenge now may survive. Of course, Ford does nothing to diminish venue and forum non conveniens challenges, which remain powerful tools to counter forum shopping.

As with any new test articulated by the Supreme Court, the focus now shifts to lower courts tasked with interpreting the limits of “related to” jurisdiction. While all litigants and courts would benefit from a consistent and predictable line of case law developing “related to” specific jurisdiction, this seems unlikely. Applying the phrase “related to,” particularly in the context of a jurisdictional analysis, “is a project doomed to failure” because “everything is related to everything else.” Id. at 1033 (Alito, J., concurring) (cleaned up).

Finally, it is unclear if and how the “related to” test will apply to jurisdictional decisions regarding corporations that are “present” in a forum strictly via internet marketing and sales. The majority’s opinion specifically noted that its analysis did not consider “internet transactions, which may raise doctrinal questions of their own.” Id. at 1028 n.4. An internet-based corporation may find more success arguing that their contacts do not amount to purposeful activities in a jurisdiction, and thereby avoid the question of whether their contacts “relate to” the plaintiff’s claims altogether.

While Ford leaves many questions, one thing is certain: as with all landmark personal jurisdiction decisions since International Shoe, unique facts, creative lawyering and logical opinion writing will, slowly but surely, fill the gaps until the Supreme Court speaks again on this issue.

1 Justice Barrett abstained.

Opinions and conclusions in this post are solely those of the author unless otherwise indicated. The information contained in this blog is general in nature and is not offered and cannot be considered as legal advice for any particular situation. The author has provided the links referenced above for information purposes only and by doing so, does not adopt or incorporate the contents. Any federal tax advice provided in this communication is not intended or written by the author to be used, and cannot be used by the recipient, for the purpose of avoiding penalties which may be imposed on the recipient by the IRS. Please contact the author if you would like to receive written advice in a format which complies with IRS rules and may be relied upon to avoid penalties.

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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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