We pointed out earlier that Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court, No. 16-466 (“BMS”), was not the only personal jurisdiction matter on the Supreme Court’s docket this term. Argued the same day as BMS was BNSF Railway Co. v. Tyrell, a Federal Employees Liability Act (“FELA”) personal injury case raising some similar personal jurisdiction questions – but not the unprecedented expansion of “specific” personal jurisdiction presented by BMS. We opined in our prior post that for all the difficulties that the plaintiffs in BMS encountered at oral argument, the plaintiffs in BNSF (there were two consolidated cases) had it even worse:
[W]e frankly can’t see a path to affirmance for the plaintiff in BNSF. It could well be a unanimous reversal of the Montana Supreme Court, albeit with at least one concurrence offering a different rationale (similar to Bauman).
For the full post, go here.
BNSF was just decided, here’s the link to the opinion, and that’s pretty much what happened – reversal with only one justice (Sotomayor) concurring in part and dissenting in part – as was the case in Bauman. Also as in Bauman, Justice Ginsburg authored the opinion of the Court.
Briefly, since we discussed the facts in BNSF before, two plaintiffs sued the defendant for personal injuries under FELA in Montana state court despite: (1) neither plaintiff being a Montana resident; (2) neither plaintiff being injured in Montana; and (3) the defendant being neither a Montana corporation nor headquartered in Montana.
By 8-1 the Court held no personal jurisdiction. The first part of BNSF was about issues peculiar to the FELA statute. We’ll skip that – except to point out that the Court once again cautioned – as it did in Bauman – that personal jurisdiction decisions predating International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310 (1945), were of doubtful validity:
[A]ll these cases [cited by plaintiffs] were decided before this Court’s transformative decision on personal jurisdiction in International Shoe. See Daimler, [which we call Bauman] 571 U.S., at ___, n.18 [134 S.Ct. 746, 761] n.18) (cautioning against reliance on cases “decided in the era dominated by” the “territorial thinking” of Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714 (1878)).
BNSF, slip op. at 9 (citations rejiggered).
After disposing of the FELA issues, BNSF turned to the Montana law issues. The Montana Supreme Court had relied on the Montana “Long Arm” statute, which provided for the exercise of general jurisdiction over all persons “found within” the state. Id. The terms of the statute didn’t matter much since the correct question was “whether the Montana courts’ exercise of personal jurisdiction under Montana law comports with the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Even though it was undisputed that the defendant was “found within” Montana under the statute, there was no jurisdiction for the rather transparently obvious reason that no state statute could go beyond what constitutional Due Process permitted:
[T]he business [defendant] does in Montana is sufficient to subject the railroad to specific personal jurisdiction in that State on claims related to the business it does in Montana. But instate business, we clarified in [Bauman] and Goodyear, does not suffice to permit the assertion of general jurisdiction over claims like [plaintiffs’] that are unrelated to any activity occurring in Montana.
Id. at 11-12 (footnote omitted).
For DDLaw’s purposes, not specific to railroads, that’s the most significant aspect of BNSF. Some courts, most notably Bors v. Johnson & Johnson, 208 F. Supp.3d 648 (E.D. Pa. 2016), which we discussed here, seem to have overlooked the point that a peculiarly worded state statute simply cannot override the Due Process constraints enforced in BNSF and Bauman. Thus, that the unusual language of a state enactment (Pennsylvania’s corporate registration statute) in Bors could be read to allow personal jurisdiction (in Bors “consent” jurisdiction) beyond the Due Process limits of Bauman means nothing. State statutes cannot extend personal jurisdiction to unconstitutional extremes – as BNSF held with respect to the “found within” language in Montana’s Long Arm statute.
Thus, although BNSF did not reach the issue of jurisdiction by consent, slip op. at 12, its rationale should be fatal to decisions like Bors that purport to hold that a state statute can authorize an otherwise unconstitutional scope of personal jurisdiction.