Rhode Island Superior Court Finds Limited Discovery Insufficient to Waive Personal Jurisdiction, Reaffirms Importance of Minimum Contacts
Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Daimler AG v. Bauman (2014) 134 S.Ct. 746, personal jurisdiction has quickly become a critical issue for asbestos defendants nationally. Perhaps because asbestos cases involve dozens of parties from multiple states, and are often commenced in jurisdictions far from where the exposures occurred, personal jurisdiction has quickly become a “first line” defense. When and how this defense may be employed, however, is evolving, with Rhode Island being one of the most recent jurisdictions to address these issues in Harold Wayne Murray and Janice M. Murray v. 3M Company, et al., C.A. No. PC-16-0151 (R.I. Super October 13, 2016, Alice B. Gibney, J.).
In the wake of Bazor v. Abex Corporation et al., C.A. No. PC-10-3965 (R.I. Super. May 2, 2016), the Superior Court of Rhode Island answered the “when and how” questions by issuing an instructive ruling on what a defendant must do to preserve its right to contest jurisdiction. The court held that a defense counsel’s “active conduct constitute[d] forfeiture of the defense of lack of personal jurisdiction.” Although the defendant in Bazor forfeited its jurisdictional defense, the court nonetheless analyzed its underlying personal jurisdiction argument, holding that the moving defendant did not have sufficient minimum contacts to exercise specific or general jurisdiction over the defendant or its predecessor. The court’s analysis therefore addressed two issues: 1) What must a defendant do to preserve a personal jurisdiction defense; and 2) What are the sufficient minimum contacts Rhode Island must have in order do exercise jurisdiction?
First, in regard to preservation of a personal jurisdiction defense, the court clarified its ruling in Bazor. In Murray, the plaintiff served his complaint on defendant on January 29, 2016. Defendant acted promptly and filed a motion to dismiss on February 29, 2016. Though defendant’s counsel participated in four days of depositions prior to filing its motion, the court nonetheless found that defendant’s counsel’s participation in an exigent deposition was insufficient to constitute “forfeiture” of a motion to dismiss based on lack of personal jurisdiction.
Looking to federal jurisprudence for guidance, the court noted that it must examine (1) “any delay in the defendant’s assertion [of the 12(b)(6) defense] and the nature of said delay,” as well as (2) “the nature and extent of a defendant’s conduct prior to raising the motion to dismiss.” The court further held that the first factor could be met by as little as four months’ delay; but reasoned that the second factor weighed more heavily than the mere passage of time. The court held that the analysis under the second factor “requires proof that defendant’s conduct was inconsistent with defendant’s assertion that the court lacked personal jurisdiction over them.” (internal citation and quotation omitted). The level of participation, therefore, appears to be the deciding factor in cases like Bazor and Murray. Notably, the court found that “Defendant’s participation in discovery was limited and reasonable,” and defendant’s post-filing participation in an additional eleven (11) deposition days did not amount to forfeiture of the lack of personal jurisdiction defense. Notwithstanding the above, the court did not establish a “bright line” rule to precisely outline the necessary amount of participation required to forfeit a jurisdictional defense. At most, the court established “[d]elays as short as four (4) months can constitute forfeiture,” however, one-month delays with limited participation in discovery will not.
Although Murray provides more guidance than Bazor, it is not entirely clear where this decision leaves litigants who want to participate in early discovery. While the Murray decision assuages some fears that participating in any discovery will result in inadvertent forfeiture of a jurisdictional defense, there remains uncertainty of where on the timetable the line crosses from limited and reasonable discovery to potential forfeiture. Ultimately, the lesson of Murray may be that the defense counsel should file its motion to dismiss timely; i.e. within one-month after being served. Thereafter, it appears that defense counsel should limit its participation in discovery and timely pursue adjudication of the motion to dismiss.
The court also ruled on the underlying personal jurisdiction argument. In doing so, the court addressed whether the defendant had sufficient minimum contacts with the forum enabling it to properly exercise specific or general jurisdiction. See Daimler AG v. Bauman, 134 S. Ct. 746, 754 (2014). When faced with the decision as to whether to assert specific jurisdiction over a party, the Rhode Island Supreme Court has employed a two part test: 1) does the cause of action arise out of the defendant’s contacts with Rhode Island; and if so, 2) whether any relationship among the defendant, forum, and the litigation exists.”
In employing this test in Murray, the superior court concluded it did not have a basis to assert specific jurisdiction over the defendant because “the cause of action does not arise out of Defendants’ contacts with Rhode Island.” Moreover, plaintiff did not reside in Rhode Island and the cause of action was not based on an occurrence in Rhode Island. Finally, there was no connection between the moving defendant’s Rhode Island based clients and the current cause of action. Therefore, the court found that it could not assert specific jurisdiction over the defendant.
The court likewise determined that general jurisdiction did not exist. In making this finding, the court noted that defendant was incorporated in Virginia, with is principal place of business in Ohio; its officers and executive employees were always located solely in Ohio; it has no offices or employees in Rhode Island; and it did not own or lease any property, sell products, nor has it ever registered to conduct business in Rhode Island. Although the court found that defendant earned approximately one-tenth percent of its total annual net sales from Rhode Island, the totality of the evidence “cannot suggest that [defendant was] virtually at home in the forum state for the purposes of general jurisdiction.” (internal citation and quotation omitted).
Ultimately, the Murray court’s holding is welcome news for defendants needing to engage in limited discovery to evaluate a motion to dismiss on personal jurisdiction grounds. In addition, the court made clear that “minimum contacts” means what it says, and a defendant with de minimis sales in the state should not be deemed “at home” there.