Without Personal Jurisdiction or Causal Relationship, Wheels Come Off Misappropriation Claim

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Without addressing the merits of the claim, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of a trade secret misappropriation action based on lack of personal jurisdiction, finding no causal relationship between the competitors’ dealings in Illinois and the asserted claims. J.S.T. Corporation v. Foxconn Interconnect Technology Ltd., et al., Case No.19-2465 (7th Cir. July 13, 2020) (Barrett, J.).

In 2005, General Motors (GM) retained Robert Bosch LLC to build a part for some of GM’s cars. To build the part, Bosch required a connector. Bosch turned to JST to design and build the part, which it did for years, becoming the sole supplier of the product to Bosch. After buying 15 million connectors, Bosch allegedly tricked JST into handing over its proprietary technical schematics and designs under the guise that GM required the materials and Bosch would keep them confidential. Instead, Bosch allegedly gave the materials to JST’s competitors, Foxconn and TEC. According to JST, Foxconn and TEC accepted the designs, used them to produce a knockoff connector and displaced JST.

JST filed a lawsuit against TEC and Foxconn affiliates in Illinois for trade secret misappropriation under the Illinois Trade Secrets Act and for unjust enrichment. TEC and Foxconn moved to dismiss the case for lack of personal jurisdiction because none of the defendants were headquartered in Illinois or had a primary place of business there. Further, none of the defendants manufactured or sold the connector in Illinois. JST alleged that TEC and Foxconn sold the connectors to Bosch in Texas and in China, where Bosch installed them into the parts it sold to GM. The only connection to Illinois was the fact that GM sells cars with those parts to dealers in Illinois. Foxconn and TEC argued that this connection was too attenuated to support personal jurisdiction. The district court agreed and dismissed the action. JST appealed.

On appeal, JST asserted that Foxconn and TEC were subject to personal jurisdiction in Illinois because the cars containing the knockoff parts were sold in the state. Relying on the Supreme Court of the United States’ decision in World-Wide Volkswagen, JST argued that personal jurisdiction may be appropriate over “a corporation that delivers its products into the stream of commerce with the expectation that they will be purchased by consumers in the forum State.” The Seventh Circuit observed that its circuit is among those that apply the stream of commerce theory in products liability cases. The Court explained that in the context of a product liability case, the defendant takes steps to reach consumers in a forum state, and the underlying litigation alleges the development of a product that harms consumers.

The Seventh Circuit noted the differences between products liability claims and those involving trade secret misappropriation. The latter is not intrinsically linked to interactions with a consumer and can occur long before an offending product ever reaches a consumer in the forum. Based on the complaint, the Court found that even if Foxconn and TEC acquired the materials from Bosch, designed the connector, manufactured the knockoff and sold their products to Bosch, those actions would have happened in Texas and China—not Illinois.

JST argued that the downstream consumer sales in Illinois damaged its bottom line, which satisfied an element of the tort. Because an element of the tort was satisfied in Illinois, that state necessarily had a close relationship to litigation concerning that tort, JST argued. The Seventh Circuit acknowledged that although this was a clever argument, the focus in World-Wide Volkswagen was the defendant’s conduct, not the plaintiff’s injury. When framing the inquiry correctly on the defendant’s conduct, the Seventh Circuit found the link between the Illinois sales and the alleged misappropriation of JST’s trade secrets too attenuated to support personal jurisdiction, and therefore affirmed the dismissal.

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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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