While discussing how the Internet affects a court’s jurisdiction over a person in Civ. Pro this week, we read Griffis v. Luban, 646 N.W.2d 527 (2002 Minn.). In this decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that an Alabama court did not have proper jurisdiction over a Minnesota resident whose contacts with Alabama centered around attacking the credentials of an Alabama resident in a series of newsgroup posts (in sci.archaeology). Like most procedure cases, the interesting aspects of the ruling have little to do with the conduct that led to the lawsuit. The question addressed in the Minnesota court ruling deals with personal jurisdiction and the minimum contacts analysis when the contacts only happen through a newsgroup. The fun with a case that stems from possible defamation in a newsgroup is that the posts that led to the lawsuit are easily available through Google’s Usenet archive (formerly Dejanews).
Griffis, an adjunct
professor instructor at the University of Alabama, sued Marianne Luban in Alabama state court, claiming that Luban’s postings to sci.archaeology were defamatory. Some of these posts included: Phoney Egyptologists
Why a person like Katherine Griffis
feels she has the right to circumvent all this and simply pluck a degree
out of Cracker Jack box in order to lend herself some sort of cachet in
a science-oriented newsgroup, is incomprehensible to me. It implies a
basic lack of self-confidence that seems odd in such an arrogant
HA HA HA!!!! Now the phoney Egyptologist is a Juris Doctor!!! I’ll bet she has several professions in newsgroups all over the Net!
Griffis won a default judgment in Alabama state court (leading to this fun thread in sci.archaeology: A DEFAULT JUDGMENT IS A LOT OF CRAP.) Griffis then sued in Minnesota to enforce the judgment. The trial court and appellate court both found for Griffis and held that the Alabama court had jurisdiction over Luban, so Luban would be forced to pay the $25,000 judgment entered in Alabama.
As the case proceeded through the courts, posters littered sci.archaeology with the smoking ruins of a long-running flame war. For example, Their Smear Campaign Still Continues (1998).
The Minnesota Supreme Court, sitting en banc, reversed and held that the Alabama court had no jurisdiction over Luban, since the main effects of her actions were not directly felt only in Alabama and because she did not explicitly target her actions towards Alabama. This week, the Supreme Court denied hearing the appeal, so the Minnesota Supreme Court’s judgment denying jurisdiction stands.
Minnesota will uphold a foreign court exercising personal jurisdiction over a Minnesota citizen when such exercise complies with the foreign state’s law providing jurisdiction and the exercise of jurisdiction does not violate the Due Process clause of the US Constitution. The Alabama statute provides for personal jurisdiction over nonresident defendants “to the full extent permitted by due process”, so the Minnesota ruling focuses on the due process inquiry. Griffis contended that the Alabama courts had specific jurisdiction over Luban, arising out of the defendant’s contacts with Alabama.
The Minnesota Court analyzed this case under the effects test adopted by the Supreme Court in Calder v. Jones, 465 U.S. 783 (1984). The Calder effects test will allow personal jurisdiction over a party whose conduct was expressly aimed at the forum state, knowing that the harmful effects would be felt primarily there and that the defendants would “reasonably anticipate being haled into court.” (In Calder, the Court upheld jurisdiction over the defendants, who wrote and edited an allegedly libelous National Enquirer article in Florida about the California activities of the plaintiff, a California resident. Not only did the Enquirer had its largest circulation in California, but Jones’s professional activities were centered in California.)
The Minnesota Court adopted the Third Circuit’s three-part analysis of the effects test from Imo Industries, Inc. v. Kiekert AG, 155 F.3d 254 (3d Cir. 1998). This test requires the plaintiff to show that: “(1) the defendant committed an intentional tort; (2) the plaintiff felt the brunt of the harm caused by that tort in the forum such that the forum state was the focal point of the plaintiff’s injury; and (3) the defendant expressly aimed the tortious conduct at the forum such that the forum state was the focal point of the tortious activity.” id. The Minnesota Court focuses on the third prong of the Imo Industries analysis, which requires not just a showing than the a showing that the defendant committed an intentional tort against the plaintiff, but a showing that the forum was the focal point of the tortious activity.
The conclusion reached by the Minnesota Court, that the evidence does not clearly demonstrate that Luban’s statements were expressly aimed at Alabama, is based on the nature of the newsgroup as an ephemeral, non-geographic forum. No matter what effects the sci.archaeology postings had on Griffis’s business and professional reputation in Alabama, because they were not specifically targetted towards an Alabama audience, they were not sufficient to establish Alabama as the focal point of the tortious activity. Even though the newsgroup postings could have been read in Alabama, those postings could be read anywhere in the world, which was not sufficient to establish Alabama as the focal point of the activity. Because the newsgroup was based on a subject interest, not a geographical interest, there was no reason to assume that the effects would manifest primarily in Alabama. Unlike in Calder, where the Court found that California represented the center of the entertainment industry, the Minnesota Court finds no such connection between Alabama and Egyptology.
Of course, allegedly libelous posts to a subject-centric newsgroup will probably have more significant negative effects on a person’s professional reputation within that specialized field than similar posts to a geographic-centric online discussion forum. However, the victim of libelous statements in an online discussion forum will have to sue in the defendant’s home state. Even though this rule forces a victim to litigate in a foreign forum, it keeps a defendant from having to defend lawsuits in foreign forum. If newsgroup contacts were enough to establish personal jurisdiction, defendants would be forced to travel to defend suits of little merit. By forcing plaintiffs to litigate in the defendant’s home state, this policy may weed out the less meritorious lawsuits, reduce the number of marginal lawsuits and promote judicial efficiency.
Not only does this case provide an interesting foray into the law of personal jurisdiction, but it also provides an interesting case about interpersonal interactions online. Usenet became particularly bad, but in many online forums, participants fail to treat the others with respect. People feel comfortable saying things to others online that most people would never say to others in person. Perhaps people are inherently nasty, and act less inhibited online because the medium is impersonal and they believe they can get away with being nasty without any bad repercussions. Perhaps they fail to realize that what they post may be archived for future generations to find.
Edited 4/8/2002 to elaborate on the legal analysis. I intend to edit at least once more for clarity and consistency of citations