March 27, 2012
DONALD FINLEY AND SHIRLEY FINLEY, H/W, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
LEE ZIMMERMAN, KATHY ZIMMERMAN, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS, AND SEAN L. MOORE AND MOORE & GOODMAN, P.A., DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Somerset County, Docket No. L-315-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued March 14, 2012
Before Judges J. N. Harris and Haas.
By leave granted, we review the Law Division's refusal, on jurisdictional grounds, to dismiss a legal malpractice case against Florida defendants Sean L. Moore, Esq. and Moore & Goodman, P.A., for lack of in personam jurisdiction. The lawsuit involves Moore's representation of New Jersey plaintiffs Donald Finley and Shirley Finley in the acquisition of a fifty percent interest in Florida realty. Because we are satisfied that there are insufficient minimum contacts with New Jersey presented in the record to justify the fair exercise of this State's jurisdiction over Moore and his law firm, we reverse the Law Division's orders and dismiss the complaint against Moore and Moore & Goodman, P.A., without prejudice.*fn1
Although no jurisdictional discovery was conducted in this case and the record consequently is not exhaustive, the following facts and circumstances bearing upon our analysis are gleaned from the parties' pleadings and motion submissions.
Plaintiffs and co-defendant Lee Zimmerman had been friends since 1998 when Zimmerman proposed, in 2005, that they jointly acquire improved realty in Fort Lauderdale, Florida for a total purchase price of $400,000. Zimmerman suggested a fifty-fifty ownership interest, although he would reside in the house and pay for its expenses and taxes.
Zimmerman also recommended that the Florida transaction be handled by the law firm of Moore & Goodman, P.A. Specifically, Sean Moore was tasked to represent the parties. According to plaintiffs' complaint, Moore "represented that he would protect plaintiffs' interest and partnership ownership position in the property at the time of purchase." On June 20, 2005, at the direction of Zimmerman and Moore, plaintiffs paid $200,000 into Moore & Goodman's trust account. This sum represented plaintiffs' capital investment in the Florida real property.
On July 21, 2005, Moore served as the settlement agent for the transfer of the real estate. The funds to pay for the realty came from plaintiffs ($200,000), Zimmerman ($40,000), and the balance was a bank loan, presumably in Zimmerman's name only ($160,000). Because a partnership agreement had not been prepared, title was held exclusively by Zimmerman. According to plaintiffs, Moore promised to ensure that their interest in the realty was protected in writing, but the lawyer did nothing except give them empty promises, excuses, and diversions for more than three years.
In February 2007, Zimmerman allegedly refinanced the realty without notice to plaintiffs with a $460,000 mortgage, thereby recouping at plaintiffs' expense his $40,000 investment and reaping approximately $260,000 after paying off the purchase money mortgage of $160,000. Plaintiffs still had nothing concrete evidencing their supposed fifty percent ownership interest in the real property. In 2010, Zimmerman filed for bankruptcy in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Florida, Fort Lauderdale Division.
The malpractice action in New Jersey was commenced in January 2010. In it, plaintiffs seek remedies against Moore and his law firm for what the fourth count describes as "gross malpractice." In other counts targeting Zimmerman and his wife, Kathy Zimmerman, plaintiffs' complaint alleges that the law firm failed to protect plaintiffs "from the pillaging by their client Lee Zimmerman." Plaintiffs accuse Moore of having divided loyalties, which facilitated Zimmerman's alleged fraudulent conduct causing plaintiffs' detriment.*fn2
In May 2011, Moore and his law firm moved to dismiss the complaint for want of in personam jurisdiction. The lag between the filing of the complaint and the motion is attributable to the bankruptcy action's automatic stay.
Moore submitted a certification in support of the motion. In it, he stated that he was admitted to the Florida bar in 1978, and practiced as an attorney exclusively in that state since that time. He claimed never to have been a member of the bar of New Jersey or any other jurisdiction except Florida.
Neither Moore nor his law firm ever employed a person who lived in New Jersey during the employment. Also, they never maintained an office or owned property in New Jersey. Finally, Moore's certification averred,
Since I began practicing law in 1978, neither I nor Moore & Goodman, P.A., has ever entered an appearance in a New Jersey Court or represented a party in a New Jersey transaction and never solicited business directed to the New Jersey market.
In response, plaintiffs relied upon their pleadings; a letter brief in opposition to the motion; and several unauthenticated exhibits, including correspondence, emails, legal bills, and unexecuted agreements. At no time did plaintiffs seek jurisdictional discovery.
After oral argument, the motion was denied. In colloquy with defendants' counsel, the motion judge asked if the attorney was aware of a recently-decided unpublished opinion of this court that found minimum contacts by a New York attorney doing legal work for a New Jersey resident. The attorney indicated that he was unaware of the decision. Nevertheless, in rendering her final decision on the motion, the judge ruled as follows:
The case that was just decided that I previously quoted has these facts. The retention by New Jersey resident[s] in drafting the documents concerning disposition of New Jersey property. [The attorney] was not licensed to practice in New Jersey. He [did] not solicit business here. He had no known presence in the state. The services were paid from a New York corporation. All the correspondence came out of a New York corporation. The [plaintiffs] resided in New Jersey, but the Appellate Division said because there had been no jurisdictional discovery conducted, that they still found that any foreseeable effects of . . . the attorney's conduct, upon New Jersey or New Jersey residents was enough to establish personal jurisdiction; and therefore, that's -- I rely on that and decide -- and deny the motion.
Moore and his law firm moved for reconsideration. The motion judge recognized that her sole reliance upon an unpublished opinion was inappropriate,*fn3 and therefore she addressed the jurisdictional motion with fresh eyes. After canvassing the relevant decisional law, the judge reached the same conclusion regarding the existence of jurisdiction. She distinguished Reliance National Insurance Company in Liquidation v. Dana Transport, Inc., 376 N.J. Super. 537, 543 (App. Div. 2005) and held that
[a]s applied to this legal malpractice case, New Jersey has jurisdiction over Moore and his firm based on the conversion of personalty earned and acquired in New Jersey belonging to a New Jersey resident. And the loss of that personalty will have an effect upon New Jersey.
In the words of [an unpublished opinion] the location of the victim and the market -- the converted funds . . . provided a tangible nexus between Moore and the State of New Jersey. Therefore, the motion for reconsideration is denied.
This appeal followed.
On appeal, we review the law de novo and owe no deference to the interpretative conclusions reached by the motion court. Aronberg v. Tolbert, 207 N.J. 587, 597 (2011). A ruling on jurisdictional issues is similarly reviewed de novo, as the question of in personam jurisdiction is a question of law.
Mastondrea v. Occidental Hotels Mgmt. S.A., 391 N.J. Super. 261, 268 (App. Div. 2007) (citing Vetrotex Certainteed Corp. v. Consol. Fiber Glass Prods. Co., 75 F.3d 147, 150 (3d Cir. 1995)).
New Jersey's long-arm jurisprudence permits our courts to exercise personal jurisdiction over out-of-state defendants to the extent permitted by the federal Constitution. See R. 4:4-4(b)(1); N.J. Dep't of Treasury, Div. of Inv. ex rel. McCormac v. Qwest Commc'ns Int'l Inc., 387 N.J. Super. 487, 498 (App. Div. 2006), cert. denied sub nom. Szeliga v. N.J. Dep't of Treasury, 550 U.S. 935, 127 S. Ct. 2263, 167 L. Ed. 2d 1092 (2007), Anschutz v. N.J. Dep't of Treasury, 550 U.S. 935, 127 S. Ct. 2262, 167 L. Ed. 2d 1092 (2007).
Two fundamental principles are consistently applied in the personal jurisdiction cases decided by the United States Supreme Court under the federal Due Process Clause since International Shoe Company v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 66 S. Ct. 154, 90 L. Ed. 95 (1945).*fn4 First, "due process requires only that in order to subject a defendant to a judgment [in personam], if he be not present within the territory of the forum, he have certain minimum contacts with it[.]" Id. at 316, 66 S. Ct. at 158, 90 L. Ed. at 102. Second, the minimum contacts must be of a nature and extent "such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend 'traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.'" Ibid. (quoting Milliken v. Meyer, 311 U.S. 457, 463, 61 S. Ct. 339, 343, 85 L. Ed. 278, 283 (1940)).
"[T]he requisite quality and quantum of contacts is dependent on whether general or specific jurisdiction is asserted." Citibank, N.A. v. Estate of Simpson, 290 N.J. Super. 519, 526 (App. Div. 1996). General jurisdiction may be obtained where defendant's contacts with the forum state are "'continuous and substantial,'" regardless of where the cause of action arose. Wilson v. Paradise Village Beach Resort & Spa, 395 N.J. Super. 520, 528 (App. Div. 2007) (quoting Charles Gendler & Co. v. Telecom Equip. Corp., 102 N.J. 460, 472 (1986)). Specific jurisdiction, which plaintiffs invoke here, "is established when a defendant's acts within the forum-state give rise to the cause of action." McDonnell v. Illinois, 319 N.J. Super. 324, 333 (App. Div. 1999) (quoting Jacobs v. Walt Disney World, Co., 309 N.J. Super. 443, 452 (App. Div. 1998)), aff'd, 163 N.J. 298 (2000)).
In the context of specific jurisdiction, we "focus on 'the relationship among the defendant, the forum, and the litigation.'" Blakey v. Cont'l Airlines, Inc., 164 N.J. 38, 67 (2000) (quoting Shaffer v. Heitner, 433 U.S. 186, 204, 97 S. Ct. 2569, 2579, 53 L. Ed. 2d 683, 698 (1977)). Absent territorial presence in the forum, "'it is essential that there be some act by which the defendant purposefully avails itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum state, thus invoking the benefit and protection of its laws.'" Waste Mgmt. v. Admiral Ins. Co., 138 N.J. 106, 120 (1994) (quoting Hanson v. Denckla, 357 U.S. 235, 253, 78 S. Ct. 1228, 1240, 2 L. Ed. 2d 1283, 1298 (1958)). The unilateral activities or actions of a plaintiff are not enough. Blakey, supra, 164 N.J. at 67.
The purposeful availment requirement ensures that an outof-state defendant "will not be compelled to participate in litigation in a foreign jurisdiction 'on the basis of random, fortuitous, or attenuated contacts or as a result of the unilateral activity of some other party.'" YA Global Invs., L.P. v. Cliff, 419 N.J. Super. 1, 9 (App. Div. 2011) (quoting Waste Mgmt., supra, 138 N.J. at 121). The "mere foreseeability" that defendant's conduct could have "some effects in the forum state" is not sufficient to establish jurisdiction. Bovino v. Brumbaugh, 221 N.J. Super. 432, 436 (App. Div. 1987). Rather, "'[t]he question is whether the defendant's [purposeful] conduct and connection with the forum state are such that he should reasonably anticipate being haled into court there.'" Blakey, supra, 164 N.J. at 67 (quoting Lebel v. Everglades Marina, Inc., 115 N.J. 317, 324 (1989)).
This inquiry must be conducted on a case-by-case basis. Shah v. Shah, 184 N.J. 125, 138 (2005). In particular, the court should consider: the burden on the defendant, the interests of the forum State, and the plaintiff's interest in obtaining relief. It must also weigh in its determination "the interstate judicial system's interest in obtaining the most efficient resolution of controversies; and the shared interest of the several States in furthering fundamental substantive social policies." [Asahi Metal Indus. Co. v. Superior Court of Cal., 480 U.S. 102, 113, 107 S. Ct. 1026, 1033, 94 L. Ed. 2d 92, 105 (1987) (quoting World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286, 292, 100 S. Ct. 559, 564, 62 L. Ed. 2d 490, 498 (1980)).]
Finally, where jurisdiction is at issue, the burden is on plaintiffs to "allege or plead sufficient facts" to warrant the court's exercise of jurisdiction. Blakey, supra, 164 N.J. at 71. This may be accomplished by way of "'sworn affidavits, certifications, or testimony.'" Jacobs, supra, 309 N.J. Super. at 454 (quoting Catalano v. Lease & Rental Mgmt. Corp., 252 N.J. Super. 545, 547-48 (Law Div. 1991)).
The issue before us is whether plaintiffs met the low-threshold burden of establishing their lawyers' minimum contacts with New Jersey to warrant our exercise of jurisdiction. It is undisputed that Moore neither resides nor does business in New Jersey, and that his law firm operates in Florida without soliciting business here. The significant events, or non-events, that are at the core of the parties' dispute all involve Florida actors, Florida real estate, and Florida law. The only link to New Jersey is plaintiffs' residence. Not even the funds paid into Moore's trust account came directly from New Jersey. The $200,000 that was transmitted in anticipation of the 2005 closing was from a Ford Credit Money Market Account through the Northern Trust Company in Oakbrook, Illinois.
We conclude that the circumstances in this case are closely analogous to the situation in Reliance, where we found no minimum contacts by Florida attorneys to warrant our exercise of in personam jurisdiction. Id. at 549-50. There, we held the following:
Stanton, a Florida firm, was retained to prosecute a subrogation action in the State of Florida for losses incurred following a shipment by an entity doing business in Florida from a Florida terminal. According to the record before us, Stanton was not even aware that Dana had a New Jersey location until after it had agreed to handle the Florida subrogation action. Stanton did not affirmatively reach out to Dana in New Jersey; rather, it was Dana who instructed Stanton not to deal with its employees at its Florida terminal, but only with its New Jersey personnel. [Ibid.]
Here, Moore and his law firm were retained to represent the buyers of a parcel of Florida real estate. Moore did not affirmatively reach out to plaintiffs in New Jersey; rather plaintiffs hired Moore based upon Zimmerman's recommendation. Any malpractice (or other tort) that was committed occurred in Florida. The Garden State's connection with the dispositive events in this matter is virtually nonexistent.
We further echo the Reliance court by concluding that New Jersey has no interest in adjudicating whether a Florida law firm was negligent in the manner in which it handled a Florida real estate transaction. While plaintiffs concededly have an interest in convenient and effective relief, that interest may as readily be achieved in Florida, where plaintiffs for many years have maintained contact. Plaintiffs, having decided to invest in Florida, would be fully able to vindicate their interests by litigating disputes in that forum. Florida, in contrast, has a particular interest in adjudicating whether a Florida lawyer and law firm were negligent or otherwise in contravention of ethical rules in connection with the practice of Florida real estate law. Reliance, supra, 376 N.J. Super. at 551. Finally, while both Florida and New Jersey may have overlapping interests in assuring that clients are not harmed by attorney negligence or other professionally-related torts, the most effective resolution of the dispute between plaintiffs and their attorneys ought to be achieved in Florida.
In summary, this quarrel between plaintiffs and their Florida lawyer and his law firm has little connection, much less a substantial connection, with the forum state. Cf. Avdel Corp. v. Mecure, 58 N.J. 264, 269 (1971) (a nonresident defendant who does not transact business in a state, may nonetheless be amenable to suit "where he enters into a contract which will have significant effects in that state"). We are satisfied that the demonstrable facts do not support the exercise of personal jurisdiction over Moore and his law firm and that to so find would "'offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.'" Shah, supra, 184 N.J. at 138 (quoting Blakey, supra, 164 N.J. at 66).
Reversed and remanded for the entry of a judgment dismissing the complaint against Moore and Moore & Goodman, P.A., without prejudice.