On February 25, 2014, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion defining the boundaries of specific personal jurisdiction and finding that the District Court for the District of Nevada did not have jurisdiction over a Georgia police officer, Anthony Walden. In its opinion, the Court emphasized the requirement that, for a court to have jurisdiction to hear a case, the defendant must have actual contacts with the forum beyond alleged harm caused to plaintiffs in the forum.
Walden v. Fiore involved a case brought by two individuals travelling from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Las Vegas, Nevada alleging that Officer Walden, a deputized Drug Enforcement Agent, committed a constitutional tort and violated their Fourth Amendment rights when he seized cash they were carrying in the Atlanta airport. The seized funds were eventually returned. The individuals sued Officer Walden in federal district court in Nevada, arguing that jurisdiction was proper because they felt the effects of the allegedly illegal seizure in Nevada. The Ninth Circuit agreed, despite the fact that the alleged tort occurred in Georgia and that Officer Walden had never been to Nevada.
The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit, holding that the focus of the "minimum contacts" requirement is the relationship among the defendant, the forum, and the litigation, and that the relevant inquiry is whether the defendant's conduct connects him to the forum "in a meaningful way." The Court in Walden offered some much-needed clarification on its 1984 holding in Calder v. Jones. In Calder, the Court found that a district court in California had jurisdiction over a Florida defendant who had written an allegedly libelous article against an actress, a California resident. InWalden, the Court identified as the crux of Calder the fact that "reputation-based 'effects' of the alleged libel connected the defendants to California, not just the plaintiff," mostly due to the nature of the tort of libel, as well as the fact that the author of the allegedly libelous story wrote it for publication in California, to be read by those living in California. Because the tort of libel requires publication to third parties, the Court found that the tort of libel actually occurred in California. By contrast, the Court found that Officer Walden did not act in any way in the State of Nevada. The Court found only an indirect connection between Officer Walden and Nevada — plaintiffs' unilateral decision to be present there.
This case signals a return to the traditional understanding of minimum contacts — requiring a specific and identifiable connection between the defendant and the forum, regardless of where the plaintiffs felt the harm. Although the Court specifically stated that this case did not resolve questions of virtual presence or jurisdictional questions involving the internet, it provides some insight into how the Court may eventually resolve such issues.
Officer Walden was represented in the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Bucholtz, firstname.lastname@example.org, a partner in King & Spalding's Business Litigation Group.
Walden v. Fiore is case number 12-547 and can be found at 134 S. Ct. 1115. The slip opinion can be found here.