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RODI v. SOUTHERN NEW ENGLAND SCHOOL OF LAW

April 10, 2003

JOSEPH RODI, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SOUTHERN NEW ENGLAND SCHOOL OF LAW; FRANCIS J. LARKIN, ESQ.; AND DAVID M. PRENTISS, ESQ., DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Joseph H. Rodriguez, District Judge.

OPINION AND ORDER

This matter comes before the Court on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss for Lack of In Personam Jurisdiction and for Improper Venue. Because the Court agrees that it does not have personal jurisdiction over the defendants, the Plaintiff's Complaint will be dismissed.

Factual Background and Procedural History

Plaintiff, Joseph Rodi, is a graduate of Defendant Southern New England School of Law ("SNESL"), a law school located in Massachusetts. Plaintiff alleges that he received correspondence at his New Jersey residence from SNESL during the summer of 1997 to solicit him to attend the law school. According to Plaintiff, this solicitation, in addition to other correspondence, misled Plaintiff "into believing that Defendant had and would acquire ABA [American Bar Association] accreditation permitting Plaintiff to be recognized as an attorney in New Jersey and Pennsylvania." (Amended Complaint, ¶ 10). As a result, Plaintiff enrolled in SNESL in August 1997 as a first year law student.

In September 1997, SNESL was denied accreditation by the ABA. Plaintiff claims that SNESL made verbal assurances throughout his enrollment that SNESL would obtain accreditation. In addition, when Plaintiff considered transferring to another law school after completing his first year, Dean Prentiss sent correspondence to Plaintiff's New Bedford, Massachusetts address that Plaintiff asserts again misled him into believing that SNESL would achieve accreditation by the ABA. To date, SNESL has not been accredited.

Plaintiff filed the Complaint on July 18, 2002. The Court advised Plaintiff by letter dated July 29, 2002 that the Complaint was deficient because it failed to satisfactorily plead diversity requirements for all parties and it failed to properly plead venue. Therefore, the Court granted Plaintiff leave to file an amended complaint that would correct these deficiencies.

On August 14, 2002, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint. Plaintiff raises several counts against SNESL and two former deans of the law school. These claims include fraudulent inducement, breach of fiduciary duties, breach of contract and of an implied duty of good faith and fair dealing, violation of the Consumer Fraud Act, and for a continuing tort. Defendants now move for dismissal for lack of personal jurisdiction over all three defendants and for improper venue. The Court received oral arguments on April 3, 2003, at which time Plaintiff conceded that general jurisdiction was not applicable to the facts at bar and that this Court does not have personal jurisdiction over the two individual defendants. Therefore, this analysis will focus on whether the Court has specific jurisdiction over SNESL.

Personal Jurisdiction

Once the defendant has raised a dispute as to jurisdiction, the burden falls upon the plaintiff to illustrate by a preponderance of evidence that the defendant's relationship with the forum state is sufficient for jurisdiction to lie. IMO Indus., Inc. v. Kiekert AG, 155 F.3d 254, 257 (3d Cir. 1998). In meeting this burden, the plaintiff may not rely on the pleadings, but rather must introduce "sworn affidavits or other competent evidence." Amberson Holdings LLC v. Westside Story Newspaper, 110 F. Supp.2d 332, 335 (D.N.J. 2000) (citations omitted).

Whether a federal district court has personal jurisdiction over an out of state corporation is governed by the law of the state in which the court sits. Provident Nat'l Bank v. California Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass'n, 819 F.2d 434, 436 (3d Cir. 1987). New Jersey's long-arm statute, N.J. Ct. R. 4:4-4(b)(1), extends jurisdiction to the full scope allowable under the due process restrictions of the Fourteenth Amendment. Charles Gendler & Co., Inc. v. Telecom Equip. Corp., 508 A.2d 1127, 1131 (N.J. 1986). Consequently, this analysis will seek to determine whether an exercise of personal jurisdiction in this matter may be reconciled with the constitutional guidelines of due process as defined by the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court has consistently announced that the central element of a jurisdictional due process evaluation must be whether the defendant has deliberately established "certain minimum contacts" such that "the suit does not offend `traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.'" Int'l Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 316 (1945) (citations omitted). Essential to this analysis is whether the defendant "purposefully avails" itself of the forum's benefits such that litigation there is reasonably foreseeable. "When a corporation purposefully avails itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum state, it has clear notice that it is subject to the suit there. . . ." World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286, 297 (1980) (internal quotation marks omitted). Without this level of association with the forum state, it would contradict due process norms to haul a nonresident defendant into court there. Id. at 296.

The jurisdictional nexus must also be the result of intentional conduct by the defendant and not merely "random, fortuitous or attenuated contacts." Amberson Holdings, 110 F. Supp.2d at 334 (internal quotation marks omitted). Nor can jurisdiction lie if the contacts are found in the mere "unilateral activity of those who claim some relationship with a nonresident defendant." Hanson v. Denckla, 357 U.S. 235, 253 (1958). Rather, there must be "some act by which the defendant purposefully avails itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum State, thus invoking the benefits and protections of its laws." Id.

Additionally, the Supreme Court has differentiated between specific jurisdiction and general jurisdiction. Helicopteros Nacionales de Colombia, S.A. v. Hall, 466 U.S. 408 (1984). In order to establish specific jurisdiction, the plaintiff must show that his cause of action arose from the defendant's forum-related activities. Id. at 414 n. 8. When claiming that a district court should exercise specific jurisdiction, "`the relationship among the defendant, the forum and the litigation' is the essential foundation" upon which this finding must rest. Id. (quoting Shaffer v. Heitner, 433 U.S. 186, 204 (1977)). Since Plaintiff has conceded that a general jurisdiction analysis does not apply here, the Court will focus solely on the existence or non-existence of specific jurisdiction.

Under the minimum contacts analysis, the Court must first "determine whether the defendant has sufficient contacts with the forum State." Burger King v. Rudzewicz, 471 U.S. 462, 472 (1985). When evaluating specific jurisdiction, "[s]o long as it creates a substantial connection with ...


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