Walden v. Fiore, 571 U.S. ___ (2014) [click for opinion]

The plaintiffs in Walden were traveling from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Atlanta, Georgia, where they intended to catch a connecting flight to Las Vegas, Nevada, one of two states in which they maintained a residence. In San Juan, Transportation Security Administration agents inspected plaintiffs’ bags and discovered nearly $97,000 in cash.  After explaining that they had been gambling at a San Juan casino, plaintiffs were permitted to board the flight to Atlanta with their cash in tow.  But upon arrival in Atlanta, plaintiffs were questioned by Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, including Defendant Anthony Walden, who seized plaintiffs’ cash but assured them that the cash would be returned to them if they could provide a legitimate source for the money.  Plaintiffs traveled onto Las Vegas without their cash, which remained in DEA custody.

Thereafter, Walden prepared an affidavit intended to demonstrate probable cause for the forfeiture of plaintiffs’ money.  However, no forfeiture proceedings were started, and eventually all of the seized money was returned to the plaintiffs.

Plaintiffs then sued Walden in the United States District Court for the District of Nevada, alleging that Walden violated their constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures.  The District Court granted Walden’s motion to dismiss, concluding that it did not have jurisdiction over Walden, even if Walden caused harm to plaintiffs in Nevada, while knowing that they were Nevada residents.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the District Court, ruling that the Nevada court had specific jurisdiction.

The United States Supreme Court “granted certiorari to decide whether due process permits a Nevada court to exercise jurisdiction over” Walden.

The Supreme Court began its analysis by noting that a defendant’s physical presence within the state is not required for a court of that state to exercise jurisdiction.  But before the court can assert jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant, “the nonresident generally must have ‘certain minimum contacts. . . such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend ‘traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.’”  In that context, to determine whether a state can exercise specific jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant, the court must focus on “‘the relationship among the defendant, the forum, and the litigation.’”  For specific jurisdiction to exist, “the defendant’s suit-related conduct must create asubstantial connection with the forum State.”

Here, there was virtually no connection between the suit-related conduct and Nevada.  Walden’s alleged wrongful search of plaintiffs and seizure of their cash occurred in Georgia.  Likewise, Walden prepared his allegedly false probable cause affidavit in Georgia and submitted it to the United States Attorney’s office in Georgia.  Walden himself never traveled to Nevada or conducted any business in that state.  All of these factors caused the Supreme Court to conclude that Walden “formed no jurisdictionally relevant contacts with Nevada.”  What then prompted the Ninth Circuit to determine that the Nevada court could assert jurisdiction over Walden?

The Ninth Circuit concluded that the Nevada court had jurisdiction because Walden submitted his probable cause affidavit knowing that it would affect persons having a significant connection to Nevada, and the DEA’s delay in returning the plaintiffs’ money caused foreseeable harm in Nevada.  This ruling ignored two fundamental principles of the specific jurisdiction calculus.  First, the Court of Appeals focused its attention on the plaintiffs’contacts with Nevada, not Walden’s.  This inappropriate change of analytical focus led the Ninth Circuit to conclude jurisdiction existed because Walden knew of plaintiffs’ ties to Nevada and directed his allegedly wrongful conduct at them in Nevada.  But this approach to jurisdiction, the Supreme Court concluded, “[I]mpermissibly allows a plaintiff’s contacts with the defendant and forum to drive the jurisdictional analysis….Such reasoning improperly attributes a plaintiff’s forum connections to the defendant and makes those connections ‘decisive’ in the jurisdictional analysis.”

Secondly, the Ninth Circuit incorrectly based its conclusion on defendant’s contacts with the plaintiffs, instead of defendant’s contacts with Nevada, prompting the High Court to observe that “our ‘minimum contacts’ analysis looks to the defendant’s contacts with the forum State itself, not the defendant’s contacts with persons who reside there.”  The Court then clarified that specific jurisdiction requires more than a defendant’s relationship with a plaintiff in the plaintiff’s forum:

[A] defendant’s relationship with a plaintiff or third party, standing alone, is an insufficient basis for jurisdiction….Due process requires that a defendant be haled into court in a forum State based on his own affiliation with the State, not based on the “random, fortuitous, or attenuated” contacts he makes by interacting with other persons affiliated with the State.

The Supreme Court added clarity to the specific jurisdiction analysis by distinguishing the facts presented here from those involved in Calder v. Jones, 465 U. S. 783 (1984), a case that has led to confusing and inconsistent results among district courts.  Applying an “effects” test, theCalder court concluded that jurisdiction in California existed over a reporter and editor domiciled in Florida for an allegedly libelous publication that was written and edited in Florida.  The Court concluded that jurisdiction existed because of the “effects” that the defendants’ conduct in Florida had in California.

Since Calder, some courts have exercised jurisdiction when a defendant’s conduct has been specifically aimed at a plaintiff who resides in the forum in which suit was brought, with the resulting harm in the forum being sufficient to establish jurisdiction.  Indeed, relying on Calder, the plaintiffs in Walden argued that Nevada jurisdiction existed “because they suffered the ‘injury’ caused by petitioner’s allegedly tortious conduct (i.e., the delayed return of their gambling funds) while they were residing in the forum.”  And the Ninth Circuit, relying on Calder, concluded that “[i]ntentional torts…can support personal jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant who has no other forum contacts.” 688 F.3d at 577 (emphasis added).

The Walden Court was quick both to distinguish Calder on the facts of that case and to reject the notion that harm in the forum alone will support jurisdiction.  Unlike the alleged wrongful conduct in Walden, the conduct inCalder - writing an article that was widely circulated in California - had effects that tied the defendants to the forum and not simply to a resident of the forum.  The Court explained that the “‘effects’ caused by the defendants’ article—i.e., the injury to the plaintiff’s reputation in the estimation of the California public—connected the defendants’ conduct to California, not just to a plaintiff who lived there.  That connection, combined with the various facts that gave the article a California focus, sufficed to authorize the California court’s exercise of jurisdiction.”

Walden restrains a court’s exercise of jurisdiction and assures defendants that they will not be haled into a distant forum simply because of their “random, fortuitous and attenuated” contacts with a resident of the forum. The unmistakable message of Walden is that due process requires more than harm to a resident of the forum, even when the harm in the forum is foreseeable and results from conduct directed at the resident.  Rather, due process is satisfied only when the plaintiff demonstrates a “substantial connection” between the defendant’s conduct and the forum, and will not be satisfied by defendant’s contact with a resident of the forum.