Walden v. Fiore and the shrinking Calder test

Per our class discussion today, here’s some additional info on the Walden v. Fiore decision written this year by Justice Thomas.

Here are the facts of the case as described by the Court:

Petitioner [and Defendant] serves as a police officer for the city of Covington, Georgia. In August 2006, petitioner was working at the Atlanta Hartsfield–Jackson Airport as a deputized agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). As part of a task force, petitioner conducted investigative stops and other law enforcement functions in support of the DEA’s airport drug interdiction program.

On August 8, 2006, Transportation Security Administration agents searched respondents [who are the plaintiffs] and their carry-on bags at the San Juan airport in Puerto Rico. They found almost $97,000 in cash. [One plaintiff] explained to DEA agents in San Juan that she and [the other plaintiff] had been gambling at a casino known as the El San Juan, and that they had residences in both California and Nevada (though they provided only California identification). After respondents were cleared for departure, a law enforcement official at the San Juan airport notified petitioner’s task force in Atlanta that respondents had boarded a plane for Atlanta, where they planned to catch a connecting flight to Las Vegas, Nevada.

When respondents arrived in Atlanta, petitioner and another DEA agent approached them at the departure gate for their flight to Las Vegas. In response to petitioner’s questioning, [one plaintiff] explained that she and [the other plaintiff] were professional gamblers. Respondents maintained that the cash they were carrying was their gambling “‘bank’” and winnings. After using a drug-sniffing dog to perform a sniff test, petitioner seized the cash. [FN1] Petitioner advised respondents that their funds would be returned if they later proved a legitimate source for the cash. Respondents then boarded their plane.

[FN1] Respondents allege that the sniff test was “at best, inconclusive,” and there is no indication in the pleadings that drugs or drug residue were ever found on or with the cash.

. . . .

At some point after petitioner seized the cash, he helped draft an affidavit to show probable cause for forfeiture of the funds and forwarded that affidavit to a United States Attorney’s Office in Georgia.[FN2] According respondents, the affidavit was false and misleading because petitioner misrepresented the encounter at the airport and omitted exculpatory information regarding the lack of drug evidence and the legitimate source of the funds. In the end, no forfeiture complaint was filed, and the DEA returned the funds to respondents in March 2007.

[FN2] The alleged affidavit is not in the record. Because this case comes to us at the motion-to-dismiss stage, we take respondents’ factual allegations as true, including their allegations regarding the existence and content of the affidavit.

Here are key points from the analysis, edited a bit. The Court went on to hold that “A forum State’s exercise of jurisdiction over an out-of-state intentional tortfeasor must be based on intentional conduct by the defendant that creates the necessary contacts with the forum.” The court then compared the facts at hand to Calder, stating (with emphasis added):

The crux of Calder was that the reputation-based “effects” of the alleged libel connected the defendants to California, not just to the plaintiff. The strength of that connection was largely a function of the nature of the libel tort. However scandalous a newspaper article might be, it can lead to a loss of reputation only if communicated to (and read and understood by) third persons. . . . Accordingly, the reputational injury caused by the defendants’ story would not have occurred but for the fact that the defendants wrote an article for publication in California that was read by a large number of California citizens. Indeed, because publication to third persons is a necessary element of libel, see id., § 558, the defendants’ intentional tort actually occurred in California. . . . In this way, the “effects” caused by the defendants’ article—i.e., the injury to the plaintiff’s reputation in the estimation of the California public—connected the defendants’ conduct to California, not just to a plaintiff who lived there. That connection, combined with the various facts that gave the article a California focus, sufficed to authorize the California court’s exercise of jurisdiction.

Accordingly, the Court held (with emphasis added):

Applying the foregoing principles, we conclude that petitioner lacks the “minimal contacts” with Nevada that are a prerequisite to the exercise of jurisdiction over him. Hanson, 357 U.S., at 251. It is undisputed that no part of petitioner’s course of conduct occurred in Nevada. Petitioner approached, questioned, and searched respondents, and seized the cash at issue, in the Atlanta airport. It is alleged that petitioner later helped draft a “false probable cause affidavit” in Georgia and forwarded that affidavit to a United States Attorney’s Office in Georgia to support a potential action for forfeiture of the seized funds. Petitioner never traveled to, conducted activities within, contacted anyone in, or sent anything or anyone to Nevada. In short, when viewed through the proper lens—whether the defendant’s actions connect him to the forum—petitioner formed no jurisdictionally relevant contacts with Nevada.

The Court of Appeals reached a contrary conclusion by shifting the analytical focus from petitioner’s contacts with the forum to his contacts with respondents. Rather than assessing petitioner’s own contacts with Nevada, the Court of Appeals looked to petitioner’s knowledge of respondents’ “strong forum connections.” In the court’s view, that knowledge, combined with its conclusion that respondents suffered foreseeable harm in Nevada, satisfied the “minimum contacts” inquiry.

This approach to the “minimum contacts” analysis impermissibly allows a plaintiff’s contacts with the defendant and forum to drive the jurisdictional analysis. Petitioner’s actions in Georgia did not create sufficient contacts with Nevada simply because he allegedly directed his conduct at plaintiffs whom he knew had Nevada connections. Such reasoning improperly attributes a plaintiff’s forum connections to the defendant and makes those connections “decisive” in the jurisdictional analysis. It also obscures the reality that none of petitioner’s challenged conduct had anything to do with Nevada itself.

The Court then considered the fact that the injury occurred in the forum state, concluding that injury in the forum state was by itself insufficient (emphasis added):

Relying on Calder, respondents emphasize that they suffered the “injury” caused by petitioner’s allegedly tortious conduct (i.e., the delayed return of their gambling funds) while they were residing in the forum. This emphasis is likewise misplaced. As previously noted, Calder made clear that mere injury to a forum resident is not a sufficient connection to the forum. Regardless of where a plaintiff lives or works, an injury is jurisdictionally relevant only insofar as it shows that the defendant has formed a contact with the forum State. The proper question is not where the plaintiff experienced a particular injury or effect but whether the defendant’s conduct connects him to the forum in a meaningful way.

Respondents’ claimed injury does not evince a connection between petitioner and Nevada. Even if we consider the continuation of the seizure in Georgia to be a distinct injury, it is not the sort of effect that is tethered to Nevada in any meaningful way. Respondents (and only respondents) lacked access to their funds in Nevada not because anything independently occurred there, but because Nevada is where respondents chose to be at a time when they desired to use the funds seized by petitioner. Respondents would have experienced this same lack of access in California, Mississippi, or wherever else they might have traveled and found themselves wanting more money than they had. Unlike the broad publication of the forum-focused story in Calder, the effects of petitioner’s conduct on respondents are not connected to the forum State in a way that makes those effects a proper basis for jurisdiction.

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