There’s No Place Like Home: United States Supreme Court Reaffirms Daimler, Sends Out-of-State Plaintiffs Packing In Two Highly Anticipated Cases

The United States Supreme Court has issued two highly-anticipated personal jurisdiction decisions limiting suits against defendants who are not “at home” in a state, or alternatively, did not commit a wrongful act in that state.

Specific Jurisdiction

“General jurisdiction” exists over a defendant only where it is “at home,” generally where it is incorporated or has its principal place of business.  “Specific jurisdiction” exists only when the claims in a lawsuit arises out of a defendant’s connection to the jurisdiction, such as selling products. The Supreme Court reaffirmed these limits on jurisdiction in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California, San Francisco County, No. 16-466 (June 19, 2017).

Some 678 plaintiffs (592 of whom were out-of-state residents) filed suit in California state court against Bristol-Myers Squibb Company (“BMS”), asserting various state-law claims based on injuries allegedly caused by a BMS drug called Plavix. BMS moved to quash the non-residents’ suits for lack of jurisdiction. BMS was headquartered and incorporated outside California, so there was no general jurisdiction. Despite the fact that the nonresidents had not taken the drug in California, the California Supreme Court held that California courts had “specific jurisdiction to entertain the nonresidents’ claims.”  The United States Supreme Court reversed.

The California Supreme Court had applied a “sliding scale approach to specific jurisdiction,” finding that BMS’s “extensive contacts with California” permitted a “less direct connection between BMS’s forum activities and plaintiffs’ claims than might otherwise be required.” Because the claims of both the resident plaintiffs and non-resident plaintiffs were similar and “based on the same allegedly defective product and the . . . misleading marketing and promotion of that product,” the “less direct connection” requirement as met. Thus, the court reasoned, it had personal jurisdiction over all the claims of all the plaintiffs, even in the absence of any California conduct as to the out-of-state plaintiffs.

The Supreme Court rejected this in no uncertain terms:

“Under the California approach, the strength of the requisite connection between the forum and the specific claims at issue is relaxed if the defendant has extensive forum contacts that are unrelated to those claims. Our cases provide no support for this approach, which resembles a loose and spurious form of general jurisdiction. For specific jurisdiction, a defendant’s general connections with the forum are not enough….What is needed—and what is missing here—is a connection between the forum and the specific claims at issue.”

This is true even if the defendant would suffer minimal or no inconvenience, even if the defendant has extensive contacts with the state, even if the forum had a strong interest in the application of its laws, and even if the forum state were the most convenient location for the litigation. Bristol-Myers should serve to help defendants limit the jurisdictions in which suit may properly be brought, and reduce forum-shopping in mass tort and perhaps other cases.

General Jurisdiction

On the issue of general jurisdiction, BNSF Railway Co. v. Tyrrell, No. 16-405 (May 30, 2017), the Supreme Court made clear that its 2014 ruling in Daimler AG v. Bauman precludes the exercise of general jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant unless that defendant has contacts which are so “continuous and systematic” so as to render that defendant essentially at home in the forum state. Thus, the Court rejected multiple theories on which plaintiff attempted to justify jurisdiction over BNSF in Montana.

First, it ruled that the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”), a federal law that allows railroad workers to sue their employers for injuries that occur on the job, does not itself create a special rule authorizing jurisdiction over railroads just because they happen to do business in a particular place. Second, and most notably, the Court held that a Montana law that allows courts in the state to exercise jurisdiction over “persons found” was in violation of the Constitution. That is, even if BNSF conceded that it is “found” in Montana, the Court held that exercising jurisdiction over BNSF must still be consistent with the Due Process clause. Under its earlier decision, the Court explained, BNSF Railway can only be sued in Montana if it is “at home” there – something which normally means that the company is either incorporated in the state or has its principal place of business there.

With neither of those criteria met, the railroad was not so “heavily engaged in activity” in Montana as to present the kind of “exceptional” case in which jurisdiction could exist even outside the company’s state of incorporation and principal place of business. Thus, although BNSF could be sued in Montana for claims that are related to its business in Montana, it could not be sued there for claims that aren’t related to anything it did within the state.

Analysis

The Court’s two defense-friendly decisions on jurisdiction should bode well for defendants challenging jurisdiction, even in cases outside these specific factual contexts. General jurisdiction can only exist where a defendant is actually “at home,” and creative efforts – such as California’s “sliding scale” – will not pass constitutional muster to establish specific jurisdiction without a clear connection, such as a wrongful act, actually occurring in the forum state.

How Much is too Much? Counsel’s Active Conduct in Asbestos Suit Results in Forfeiture of Jurisdictional Defense

Since the jurisdictionU.S. Supreme Court handed down Daimler AG v. Bauman 134 S.Ct. 746 (2014), personal jurisdiction defenses have experienced a renaissance in asbestos litigation.  Defendants that wish to win such arguments, however, are well advised to heed a recent ruling by Judge Gibney, who presides over Rhode Island’s state court asbestos docket.  In Bazor v. Abex Corporation et al., C.A. No. PC-10-3965 (R.I. Super. May 2, 2016), Judge Gibney issued a ruling that is instructive on what a defendant must do to preserve its right to contest jurisdiction, holding that a defense counsel’s “active conduct constitute[d] forfeiture of the defense of lack of personal jurisdiction.”  The court referred to “forfeiture” as opposed to “waiver” because the defendant had properly asserted the lack of personal jurisdiction as a special defense.

In this instance, the “active participation” included the following conduct during the two years and nine months between the filing of an answer and the motion to dismiss: filing an objection to the trial date, attending a plaintiff’s deposition, requesting and participating in the reopening of that deposition, participating in the deposition of the plaintiffs’ expert, objecting to the expert’s deposition on non-jurisdictional grounds, disclosing eight  expert witnesses, filing 15 motions in limine, supplementing its expert witness disclosure, producing two expert witnesses for depositions, responding to discovery (without preserving the defense of lack of personal jurisdiction), supplementing its expert discovery, moving to compel the production of the plaintiffs’ bankruptcy trust documents, and participating in at least ten status/settlement conferences.  In short, defense counsel’s very active participation in the litigation was so active so as to constitute “forfeiture” of a claim of lack of personal jurisdiction.

Looking to federal jurisprudence for guidance, the court focused on defense counsel’s litany of activity over several years.  Synthesizing federal decisions, the court identified two  principal elements to weigh to determine whether a defense of personal jurisdiction is forfeited: (a) the delay in asserting the defense; and (b) the “nature and extent” of the defendant’s involvement in the case.  The court noted 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.  With regard to the second factor, the court cited defendant’s filing of an appearance, participation in discovery, attending and taking depositions, and filing and opposing motions as evidence of active participation.  Notably, the court found that the defendant had created “substantial delay” without “a sufficiently meritorious reason” for failing to assert its defense for two years and nine months after the filing of its answer.  The level of participation appears to have been the deciding factor; with special attention brought to “the fifteen motions in limine [defendant] filed which sought merits-based rulings” and the failure to continually assert the defense throughout the course of litigation.  However, of concern is that the ruling did nothing to establish a “bright line” rule of precisely how much participation is “too much” so as to result in a forfeiture of a jurisdictional defense.

It is unclear where this decision leaves litigants who need to participate in early discovery and who also want to preserve their jurisdictional defenses.  Defendants who wish to maintain their defenses are faced with choosing from various interpretations of the Bazor decision, focusing on the assertion of their rights and carefully monitoring the level of their participation.  The decision could reasonably be read to indicate that a party may participate in discovery, but only if they continue to maintain and pursue their jurisdictional defense.  Alternatively, some parties may refuse to participate in non-jurisdictional discovery for fear of inadvertent forfeiture. This may create friction with plaintiff’s counsel when their clients are in poor health, which frequently occurs in asbestos cases across the country.  Ultimately, the lesson of Bazor may be that safest resolution for defense counsel will be to file and pursue dispositive jurisdictional motions as early in the case as possible.  At the very least, defense counsel should raise the defense in pleadings and discovery which precede the filing of the motion to dismiss on jurisdictional grounds and/or reach some sort of agreement with opposing counsel to prevent forfeiture despite some level of active participation in the case. For example, defense counsel in the asbestos litigation should obtain a stipulation that attendance at an exigent deposition does not constitute a waiver of personal jurisdiction arguments; and that stipulation should be placed on the record.