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Argument preview: Where can a federal agent be sued?

William Baude will be the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Chicago beginning next year.

During its October sitting, the Court heard oral arguments in cases involving venue and personal jurisdiction.  Next week, on November 4, in the Court will return again to both topics during oral arguments in Walden v. Fiore

The facts sound like the beginning of one of the Court’s many constitutional tort cases.  Gina Fiore and Keith Gipson are professional gamblers who were — like millions of other travelers every year — changing planes at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport.  Fiore and Gipson were carrying $97,000 in cash, much of which they’d won gambling in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and were returning to their home in Nevada.

The cash aroused the suspicions of law enforcement at the Atlanta airport, and the two travelers were questioned by Anthony Walden, a local police officer and deputized Drug Enforcement Administration agent, who eventually seized all of their money for possible forfeiture.  Fiore and Gipson flew on to Nevada, where their lawyer tried to help them get their money back.  The plaintiffs allege that Walden filed a false affidavit at this point to keep them from recovering the cash, but eventually the government relented and returned the money.

Fiore and Gipson sued Walden. The lawfulness of Walden’s conduct (and the factual truth of the plaintiffs’ allegations) is not before the Court.  Instead, the issue presented by this case is whether Walden can be sued in a federal court in Nevada.  That controversy raises questions of both personal jurisdiction and venue.

The personal jurisdiction question is whether Walden had enough contact with Nevada to justify that state’s exercise of jurisdiction over him.  (Walden is being sued in federal, rather than state, court, but the federal rules in this case rely on the state’s jurisdiction.)  The Supreme Court has long said that due process prevents a state from exercising jurisdiction over those who have no connection to it.  Instead, the defendant must have “certain minimum contacts with [the state] such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend ‘traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.'”

On one hand, Walden’s connections to Nevada are not obvious.  The case’s main connection to Nevada is the fact that *Gipson and Fiore* live and were traveling there.   But everything *Walden* did during the incident took place in Georgia.  That is where he met Fiore and Gipson, where he seized their money, and where he (allegedly) worked to keep them from getting it back.

On the other hand, the Supreme Court’s decision in Calder v. Jones provides some support for a state’s jurisdiction over outsiders who harm that state’s residents.  In Calder, the Supreme Court allowed California to exercise jurisdiction over Floridians who wrote and edited (in Florida) a story in the National Enquirer that allegedly defamed a resident of California.

Walden argues that this case goes far beyond Calder, because Calder requires the defendant to intentionally target the forum with his conduct. The story at issue in Calder concerned events in California, and that is where the injury was felt.

Fiore and Gipson respond that their situation is similar: Committing an intentional tort against a resident of Nevada, they say, *does* target Nevada.  And they say that their injury was also felt in Nevada, because that is where they tried to take, and tried to retrieve, their money.

The venue question is this: even assuming that Nevada may constitutionally have jurisdiction over him, did Congress intend for this suit to take place in a Nevada federal court? (Unlike the personal jurisdiction question, this issue is limited to federal courts.)

Here, Walden has an even stronger argument.  The venue statute allows a federal case to be brought in “a judicial district in which a substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to the claim occurred.”  But as I mentioned above, all of Walden’s conduct “occurred” “in” Georgia, not Nevada.  The plaintiffs argue that the venue statute is not strictly limited to the location of the defendant’s conduct, which is true.  Plaintiffs argue that Nevada is where their injury took place, and it is also where they worked to prevent their money from being forfeited.  But it is still a stretch to describe anything that happened in Nevada as “giving rise” to the plaintiffs’ claim.

One additional issue as the case proceeds will be how the two questions interact.  The personal jurisdiction question likely has broader implications for litigation throughout the country, and especially for members of law enforcement (whose concerns are aired by several amici on Walden’s side, including the United States).  But the venue question may prove to be an easier source of agreement among the Justices.

[Disclosure:  Goldstein & Russell, P.C., whose attorneys contribute to this blog in various capacities, is among the counsel to the respondents in this case.  However, the author of this post is not affiliated with the firm.]

Recommended Citation: William Baude, Argument preview: Where can a federal agent be sued?, SCOTUSblog (Oct. 30, 2013, 3:49 PM),