Two recent, and seemingly innocuous decisions, from the U.S. Supreme Court regarding personal jurisdiction issues are instructive and should not be ignored when wandering the unworn path of Internet defamation cases. My colleague, Jeff Cox, and I recently published an article in the MLRC MediaLawLetter (members only) that evaluates the potential impact of Daimler AG v. Bauman and Walden v. Fiore on personal jurisdiction issues in Internet defamation lawsuits. Both decisions confirm the Court’s allegiance to long-standing principles of personal jurisdiction, and, likely, the Court’s reluctance to expand or modify those traditional principles in the millennial world.
Interestingly, in Walden, the Court highlighted its prior decision, Calder v. Jones, 465 U.S. 783 (1984), as illustrative of the basic principles that must be applied when courts are presented with questions of personal jurisdiction. Calder, as you may recall, established the “effects test” for determining whether specific personal jurisdiction exists in defamation cases. While Calder remains good law, Walden strained to distinguish Calder. The Court in Walden explained that, “[u]nlike the broad publication of the forum-focused story in Calder, the effects of [Walden’s] conduct on respondents are not connected to the forum State in a way that makes those effects a proper basis for jurisdiction.” However, in Calder, the “effect” of the defendant’s article, the injury to the plaintiff, was the primary basis for finding jurisdiction over the defendant. Trying to shoehorn Calder into its current decision, the Court then suggests that this “effect” (which is based solely on the plaintiff’s link to the forum state, a no-no under Walden) was considered in combination with “the various facts that gave the article a California focus.”
Walden’s analysis of Calder begs the question, what does all this mean for determining personal jurisdiction in Internet defamation cases? The Court was quick to note that “this case does not present the very different questions whether and how a defendant’s virtual ‘presence’ and conduct translate into ‘contacts’ with a particular State. . . . We leave questions about virtual contacts for another day.” Notwithstanding this footnote, if the Court holds true to its progeny of personal jurisdiction decisions (a clear trend with the current Court), it is unlikely that technological advances will uproot traditional principles of personal jurisdiction and alter the focus of the “minimum contacts” inquiry in any meaningful way.