The Supreme Court has resolved many important questions about personal jurisdiction. But somewhat surprisingly, it has not decided a fundamental question that arises in class actions – to establish specific personal jurisdiction (meaning case-linked personal jurisdiction) over a defendant, must the plaintiff establish that the defendant has sufficient connections to the forum with respect to all plaintiffs’ claims, or only the named plaintiffs’ claims? Not only has the Supreme Court not decided this question, but no court of appeals has yet decided it. The D.C. Circuit will likely be the first, in a case now pending – Molock v. Whole Foods Market. We filed a brief (pdf) in Molock on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable.
As we explain in the brief, the Supreme Court has gone a long way toward resolving this question. Two terms ago, the Supreme Court decided Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court (BMS) (pdf), which addressed how courts should assess personal jurisdiction in a mass tort action. In that case, 86 California residents and 592 plaintiffs from other states sued BMS in California, alleging injuries from taking the drug Plavix. The nonresident plaintiffs did not claim any connections to California: They “were not prescribed Plavix in California, did not purchase Plavix in California, did not ingest Plavix in California, and were not injured by Plavix in California.” The California Supreme Court nevertheless upheld the state court’s assertion of specific personal jurisdiction over the defendant for all of the plaintiffs’ claims. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, explaining that due process requires a plaintiff-by-plaintiff, claim-by-claim assessment, so a court in an action with multiple plaintiffs must find that the defendant has the necessary connection to the forum for each plaintiff’s claim.
We think that the same principles apply to class actions. The Molock case helps to illustrate the point. In Molock, residents of the District of Columbia and residents of many other states sued Whole Foods in federal court in D.C. to challenge certain employment practices. Like the nonresident plaintiffs in BMS, the nonresident plaintiffs in Molock did not live or work in the District of Columbia. Their claims simply are not based on any conduct that occurred in the forum. And they should not be able to bootstrap their claims against Whole Foods just because those claims are similar to the resident plaintiffs’ claims.
In our brief, we urge the D.C. Circuit to adopt the following rule: A court may allow a class action to proceed only if the defendant is subject to specific personal jurisdiction in the forum with respect to every class member’s claim. If some class members cannot show the necessary connection between their claims and the defendant’s activities in the forum, then they could not maintain their claims as individual actions in the forum – and so they should not be able to bring them in a class action, either. This is the same rule that the Supreme Court applied in BMS; the only difference is that BMS was a mass action and Molock is a class action. But the requirements of due process are the same. A defendant should not be required to come to a jurisdiction to defend itself against claims when that jurisdiction has no real interest in those claims. And the Rules Enabling Act reinforces this point, because it bars plaintiffs from using the class-action device to abridge defendants’ substantive rights, including the right to contest personal jurisdiction over any individual claim.
Our brief also explains why a contrary rule would be troubling. It would encourage abusive forum shopping, permitting plaintiffs’ lawyers to bring a nationwide class action suit anywhere that even a single individual whose claim has a requisite forum connection is willing to sign up as a named plaintiff. That result would make the due process limitations on personal jurisdiction all but meaningless, and it would violate basic principles of federalism by permitting a court in a state that has no legitimate interest in the vast majority of the putative class’s claims to nonetheless adjudicate those claims.
Briefing is still ongoing in Molock, and it is currently scheduled to wrap up in April. The D.C. Circuit has not yet scheduled oral argument. We will keep you posted on the latest developments in this case and other appeals presenting the same issue.