Where Can You be Hauled into Court When You Post Defamatory Statements on Facebook?

facebook_defamationDespite advances in technology and the myriad of new platforms on which we can defame someone, traditional principles of personal jurisdiction still apply. This past January, a California appellate court reversed the trial court's finding of personal jurisdiction and found that posting defamatory statements about a person on Facebook, while knowing the person resides in the forum state, is insufficient in itself to create the necessary minimum contacts. Burdick . Superior Court of Orange Cty., Case No. G049107 (Jan. 14, 2015). Not a surprising result in light of last year's unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Walden v. Fiore, which found that the plaintiffs could not exercise personal jurisdiction over the defendant "because a plaintiff's contacts with the forum State cannot be 'decisive in determining whether defendants' due process rights are violated.'" (Emphasis added.)

In Burdick, the plaintiffs, California residents, filed a lawsuit against Douglas Burdick, among others, for defamation and other intentional torts. Burdick is an Illinois resident who posted defamatory statements about the plaintiffs on his personal Facebook page. Burdick filed a motion to quash service of summons based on lack of personal jurisdiction. The trial court denied Burdick's motion; Burdick filed a petition for peremptory writ of mandate to challenge the trial court's order. Following Walden v. Fiore, the California appellate court reversed the trial court's decision and remanded the case for discovery on the limited issue of personal jurisdiction.

The appellate court's decision provides a thoughtful analysis of the issue of personal jurisdiction in the Internet age. The court considered Calder v. Jones, 465 U.S. 783 (1984), and Walden v. Fiore, 571 U.S. ___, 134 S.Ct. 1115, and found that "the correct jurisdictional analysis focuses on (1) the defendant's contacts with the forum, not with the plaintiff, and (2) whether those contacts create the relationship among the defendant, the forum, and the litigation necessary to satisfy due process." In other words, a defendant's knowledge that the online statement could harm someone in the forum state is not enough to support personal jurisdiction.

In Burdick, the court relied on several facts in support of its decision. First, the court considered where Burdick was when he posted – and later removed – the defamatory statements on his Facebook wall (Illinois). Second, the court evaluated whether Burdick had any direct contacts with California – he did not. Interestingly, the court considered whether Burdick had any Facebook friends who resided in California – he did not (or, at least, not enough). Third, the court evaluated whether Burdick took any steps to specifically aim content at California residents – he did not. The court reiterated that "personal jurisdiction must be based upon forum-related acts that were personally committed by the nonresident."

Burdick confirms that social media has not stripped us of our due process rights. Following the Supreme Court's lead in Walden, Burdick provides a helpful roadmap to navigate the issue of personal jurisdiction in online defamation cases.

About The Author

Erin Rhinehart | Faruki Partner