Federal Courts Continue to Split Over Whether They Have Personal Jurisdiction Over Claims Brought By Non-Forum Class Members Against Non-Forum Defendants

For years, the plaintiffs’ bar has crammed thousands of non-forum class members into a single action in order to more easily justify broader discovery requests, and to more quickly aggregate statutory damages. And many defendants and courts simply assumed that plaintiffs could do so. But that assumption was called into question by Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California, a mass tort case in which the Supreme Court held that federal courts do not have specific personal jurisdiction over the nonresidents’ claims merely because resident plaintiffs “allegedly sustained the same injuries as did the nonresidents.”

Since then, many courts have limited the scope of a proposed class to residents of the state in which the federal court sits. We reported about one such case in January. More recently, the Southern District of California ruled in McCurley v. Royal Seas Cruises, Inc. that the fact that Bristol-Myers Squibb was a mass tort case does not necessarily mean that personal jurisdiction challenges cannot be made in other types of cases. Several courts within the Northern District of Illinois have also found that “specific jurisdiction depends on an affiliation between the forum and the underlying controversy” and that Bristol-Myers did not change the standard itself.

Other courts have departed from this reasoning, however, and have become preoccupied with distinguishing class actions from mass actions like Bristol-Myers Squibb. For example, the Central District of California recently denied a motion to dismiss class action claims, agreeing with the plaintiff that “Bristol-Myers applies to mass tort actions, not class actions.” Sotomayor v. Bank of Am., No. 19-0541, 2019 WL 1985115 (C.D. Cal. May 3, 2019). The plaintiff in this case sought to certify a class of “all persons throughout the United States” who received calls in a four-year span. The defendant argued that the court lacks personal jurisdiction over it for the TCPA claims of any non-California residents because the defendant did not have the required minimum contact with California in relation to calls allegedly made to those unnamed plaintiffs.

The court disagreed. It held that, whereas each plaintiff in mass tort actions must represent “a real party in interest,” courts are not required to have specific jurisdiction over each unnamed class member in class actions. It reasoned that defendants in class actions as are not at risk of the same level of “unfairness” as in mass tort actions. That is so, the court found, because Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 requires plaintiffs to satisfy several requirements before certifying a class, which provide sufficient “due process safeguards” that are lacking in mass tort actions.

Like other courts before it, though, the Sotomayor court struggled to identify any authorities from before Bristol-Myers Squibb that explicitly barred this personal jurisdiction defense. Indeed, the two decisions it cited lend little support to its contentions; Phillips Petroleum Co. v. Shutts describes the minimum due process protection that unnamed non-resident class members must receive in order to qualify as a “class member,” and Devlin v. Scardelletti began “by clarifying that this issue does not implicate the jurisdiction of the courts.” Neither decision invalidates defendants’ jurisdictional challenge to the claims of non-forum class members.

Indeed, as the Supreme Court noted in Bristol-Myers Squibb, that ruling was a “straightforward application . . . of settled principles of personal jurisdiction.” One of these principles dates back long before the Bristol-Myers Squibb decision: “[S]pecific personal jurisdiction does not lie over a nonresident plaintiff’s claim against a defendant not subject to general jurisdiction based solely on the close relationship between that claim and a claim brought in the same case by a resident plaintiff.” See, e.g., Seiferth v. Helicopteros Atuneros, Inc., 472 F.3d 266 (5th Cir. 2006).

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