Last week, the United States Supreme Court also heard argument in the “other” litigation tourist personal jurisdiction case pending before it – BNSF Railway Co. v. Tyrell, No. 16-405 (U.S. argued April 25, 2017) (“BNSF”) (link to transcript). While BNSF mostly concerned statutory issues under the Federal Employees Liability Act (“FELA”), it does involve a personal jurisdiction question related to litigation tourism. The Court considered it sufficiently related to BMS that it scheduled oral argument back-to-back with BMS (see here for last week’s post on the BMS oral argument). Because we’re interested in personal jurisdiction as a constitutional check on the litigation tourism phenomenon, we’ve also taken a look at what went down during the BNSF argument.
Once again the United States government appeared as amicus supporting the defense. Tr. at 1, 12-18. It appears to us that the plaintiff in BNSF had an even tougher time before the Court than the plaintiffs in BMS – and that’s saying something. Another perhaps notable aspect of the oral argument was that the Justices, particularly as to the defense and defense-supporting United States arguments, were a lot less engaged than in BMS. These counsel actually argued for entire pages of transcript without being interrupted by questions. Indeed, the defendant’s rebuttal argument in BNSF drew no questions at all, and thus the defense used only a fraction of its reserved time. Id. at 43-44. The entire BNSF transcript was 44 pages – 20 pages (almost 1/3) shorter than BMS.
Justice Sotomayor, the sole dissenter from the personal jurisdiction rationale in Daimler AG v. Bauman, 134 S.Ct. 746 (2014), seemed most animated when discussing an issue that was not even before the Court in BNSF – nonconsensual “consent” to general jurisdiction by virtue of mere registration to do business in a state. Tr. at 4-6. We’ve written on this Bauman dodge before, and were somewhat perplexed to see it arise in a United States Supreme Court argument – until we heard from Chief Justice Roberts: “[T]he issue . . . was not addressed below and is not before us.” Id. at 6. Whew! We thought we’d missed something significant.
The heart of the plaintiff’s argument was that FELA, in provisions that spoke only to venue (it’s a peculiar statute in that it allows plaintiffs to choose to bring federal claims in state court), somehow also authorized an expanded form of personal jurisdiction that permitted litigation tourism. We gathered from the argument that the plaintiff was a North Dakota resident claiming workplace injuries in Washington State, id. at 40 – so of course, he sued the defendant in Montana, which was neither the defendant’s principal place of business nor its state of incorporation.
Since BNSF was a statutory case, the Court was interested in whether Congress could authorize litigation tourism by statute. The defense response was that Congress could authorize nationwide service of process allowing expanded federal court jurisdiction, should it choose to create a federal cause of action, but that Due Process would render problematic any attempt to expand state-court personal jurisdiction to accommodate litigation tourists. Tr. at 8. The fundamental problem with the plaintiff’s statutory argument was put most succinctly by the Assistant Solicitor General arguing for the government:
[T]here’s a strong Federal interest in not having words that don’t say anything about service of process being interpreted to in fact say something about service of process[. W]e have a first sentence that refers to venue only in Federal courts, and then a second sentence referring to State courts. But all it does is to clarify that there’s concurrent jurisdiction in the State courts. And we just don’t see how you can get to conferral of personal jurisdiction in the State courts.
Tr. at 13.
Nobody, not even Justice Sotomayor, the justice most sympathetic to litigation tourism, seemed comfortable with that argument. The statutory argument was criticized by:
Chief Justice Roberts: Tr. at 23-24, 29-30.
Justice Ginsburg: Id. at 19-20, 31, 40.
Justice Alito: Id. at 25-26.
Justice Sotomayor never appeared inclined to support plaintiff’s statutory argument in BNSF. Rather, she suggested that “we could just say it [FELA §56] doesn’t apply to State courts,” id. at 37 – which was precisely where the plaintiff had sued.
So, aside from the seemingly doomed argument that FELA should be interpreted to say what it didn’t say – and apparently what no federal statute has ever provided – about personal jurisdiction/service of process, what did the argument have to say about Bauman and Due Process?
The government argued that “[i]f the Court’s decisions in Goodyear and Daimler mean anything,” it “just can’t be correct” that “a company like BNSF is subject to general personal jurisdiction in 28 or more States.” Tr. at 14. Justice Breyer did not “really see the difference” between Bauman and BNSF. Id. at 38-39. Justice Kagan tried to limit the plaintiff’s non-statutory personal jurisdiction argument to railroads being “so unique that they should be subject to general jurisdiction everywhere.” Id. at 32. After some hemming and hawing plaintiff agreed, id. at 34, but plaintiff seemed even more interested in a fact-specific, Montana-only exercise of Bauman personal jurisdiction. Id. at 33, 36 (arguing that the defendant was “at home” because it had Montana “lobbyists”). Unlike the plaintiffs in BMS, the plaintiff in BNSF was never so bold as to call for overruling Bauman.
Finally, when pushed by Justice Gorsuch, plaintiff abandoned altogether the argument that Bauman be limited to “foreign corporations.” Id. at 41-42.
We’ve been burned making Supreme Court predictions before, but we 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).