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Opinion analysis: The boundaries of specific jurisdiction

What happens in Las Vegas may stay in Las Vegas, but the inverse is also true.  In Walden v. Fiore, decided yesterday, the Court unanimously concluded that a pair of professional gamblers from Nevada could not force a Georgia law enforcement agent to litigate against them in Nevada, because the agent had never had connections to that state.

The background:  Officer Anthony Walden had seized a large amount of money from Gina Fiore and Keith Gipson when they were changing planes in Atlanta.  After they returned home to Nevada, they and their lawyer eventually got their money back — but only after getting the runaround, they say, from Walden.  Fiore and Gipson sued Walden in a federal court in Nevada, which prompted the question whether Nevada could exercise jurisdiction over him.  The Ninth Circuit had said that it could.

In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Thomas, the Court reversed the Ninth Circuit.  Jurisdiction depends, it said, on the defendant’s (i.e., Walden’s) contact with the forum.  Moreover, it is not enough that he may have harmed someone who resides in the forum.  He must have contact with the forum itself, not simply with the plaintiffs.  For these propositions the Court cited settled precedents.  Walden’s only contact with Nevada was the fact that Fiore and Gipson happened to live there, so there was no jurisdiction.

The case might therefore have been a no-brainer were it not for a different prior precedent from the Court — Calder v. Jones.  In Calder, the Supreme Court had allowed California courts to exercise jurisdiction over two out-of-state authors who were sued for libel.  They had written a story, published in the National Enquirer and circulated in California, that made scandalous claims about California actress Shirley Jones.  Calder might seem to suggest that harming a person who is in California can get you sued in California.

The Court took a much more limited view of Calder.  Jurisdiction had been appropriate in that case, it explained, not simply because the comments were directed at a Californian.  Rather, the story had been read throughout California by third parties, not merely by Jones.  Indeed, being published to third parties is a crucial element of a defamation claim.  So California was a non-incidental part of the conduct.  By contrast, Walden had taken the money in Georgia, and the only connection to Nevada is that the plaintiffs happened to be there when they wanted their money – but they could have just as easily been anywhere.

After the argument, I noted that the Court appeared to be looking to decide the case in a non-controversial way that would not implicate difficult questions about “virtual contacts” through the Internet.  In a footnote, the Court announced that it would “leave questions about virtual contacts for another day.”

In recent years the Court has repeatedly been reaffirming a narrower view of “general” jurisdiction, including in Daimler AG v. Bauman, which I covered last monthWalden v. Fiore now does the same thing for “specific” jurisdiction.  In a sense, these cases may simply be reaffirmations of settled law.  But in both areas, they resolved questions that had started to become unsettled in the lower courts, and so they may be quite widely cited by litigators and judges going forward.

Plain English:  It is a basic principle of jurisdiction that you cannot force somebody to travel to a far-off place to litigate a case if they have no connection to that place.  If you want to sue somebody in a particular state, you need to show that they have made contact with the state — either by committing an act in that state, or at least by intentionally reaching out to the state somehow.  But you cannot sue them simply because you live in the state and you have been hurt.  Because Officer Walden confiscated the plaintiffs’ money in Georgia and kept it in Georgia, they could not sue him in Nevada when they returned home.

[Disclosure:  The law firm of Goldstein & Russell, P.C., whose attorneys contribute to this blog in various capacities, is among the counsel to the respondents in both Walden v. Fiore and Daimler AG v. Bauman.  However, the author of this post is not affiliated with the firm.]

Recommended Citation: William Baude, Opinion analysis: The boundaries of specific jurisdiction, SCOTUSblog (Feb. 26, 2014, 2:37 PM),