Seyfarth Synopsis: In Bristol-Myers Squibb Company v. Superior Court of California, et al., No. 16-466 (U.S. June 19, 2017), the U.S. Supreme Court articulated the narrow circumstances under which specific jurisdiction will lie when it rejected the California Supreme Court’s “sliding scale” approach to evaluating specific jurisdiction. The decision is decidedly employer-friendly. As a new weapon against forum shopping, this case is a must read for any employer facing class action litigation in a jurisdiction where the company is not incorporated or does not have its principal place of business.

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Case Background

In Bristol-Myers Squibb Company v. Superior Court of California, et al., No. 16-466 (U.S. June 19, 2017), 86 California residents and 592 non-residents from 33 other states sued Bristol-Myers in California state court, asserting California state law claims for product liability, negligent representation, and misleading advertising. Id. at 2. Plaintiffs specifically alleged that the company’s drug, Plavix, damaged their health. Id. In contrast to the California residents, the non-resident plaintiffs did not allege that they obtained Plavix in California, nor did they claim that they were injured by Plavix or treated for their injuries in California. Id.

After Bristol-Myers challenged personal jurisdiction with respect to the non-residents’ claims in the trial Court and the California Court of Appeal, the California Supreme Court held that specific jurisdiction existed. Id.

Although the California Supreme Court determined that general jurisdiction was lacking, it nonetheless found that specific jurisdiction existed under its “sliding scale” approach. Under this approach, the more wide-ranging the defendants’ forum contacts, the greater the connection between the forum contacts and the claim. Id. at 3. Because of Bristol-Myers’ extensive contacts with California, the California Supreme Court required less direct connection between the company’s forum activities and the non-residents’ claims than otherwise might be required. Id. Particularly important to the California Supreme Court’s determination that specific jurisdiction existed was that the claims of the California residents and the claims of the non-residents were similar. Id.

The Company thereafter successfully secured review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Decision

In an 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the California Supreme Court failed to identify an adequate link between the State of California and the 592 non-resident plaintiffs to support specific jurisdiction. After explaining that specific jurisdiction requires an “affiliation between the forum and the underlying controversy” the Supreme Court noted that the “sliding scale” approach relaxes this requirement and “resembles a loose and spurious form of general jurisdiction.” Id. at 7.

The Supreme Court further explained that “[t]he mere fact that other plaintiffs were prescribed, obtained, and ingested Plavix in California — and allegedly sustained the same injuries as did the non-residents — does not allow the State to assert specific jurisdiction over the non-residents’ claims.” Id. at 8. Importantly, the Supreme Court emphasized “[w]hat is needed — and what is missing here — is a connection between the forum and the specific claims [i.e., the non-residents’ claims] at issue.” Id.

Implication For Employers

Although the Supreme Court’s decision does little to alter the requirements of specific jurisdiction, it is nonetheless important in its practical effect of impeding forum shopping in the class action context. Plaintiffs, for instance, will have a much more difficult time suing in a jurisdiction where the company is not “at home” for general jurisdiction purposes and where the company’s conduct in the forum state is not sufficiently connected to the claims of nonresident plaintiffs.

This decision is particularly important to employers with a national presence or satellite offices. The lesson here is employers should not take personal jurisdiction for granted, particularly when defending claims brought by residents and nonresidents of a forum state where there is no general jurisdiction.