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Christie v. National Institute for Newman Studies

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

June 28, 2017



          Freda L. Wolfson United States District Judge

         This matter comes before the Court on a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(2) filed by Defendants National Institute for Newman Studies (“NINS”), Catherine Ryan, Drew Morgan, Henry Gailliot, and David Abernathy (collectively “Defendants”), seeking dismissal of the Complaint by Plaintiff Robert C. Christie (“Plaintiff”) for lack of personal jurisdiction. On this motion, this Court is faced with the question whether and how a defendant's “virtual” presence and conduct translate into contacts with a particular forum state. For the following reasons, the Court finds that Defendants are subject to personal jurisdiction in New Jersey because of their alleged tortious conduct committed via the Internet, which constituted “virtual contacts” sufficient for specific jurisdiction purposes. Therefore, Defendants' motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction is DENIED.


         Plaintiff was formerly employed as the Executive Director of NINS. Compl., ¶ 12. Plaintiff, at all times relevant, resided in New Jersey. Id. at ¶ 1. NINS is a non-profit organization with its principal place of business in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Id. at ¶ 2. Defendants Catherine Ryan, Drew Morgan, Henry Gailliot, and David Abernathy (the “Individual Defendants”), are all members of NINS's Board of Directors and residents of Pennsylvania. Id. at ¶¶ 3-7.

         Plaintiff alleges that when he was hired as the Executive Director, Defendants knew that he would continue to reside in New Jersey, and to carry out his job duties, Plaintiff would travel back-and-forth between his home and NINS's headquarter in Pennsylvania. Pl.'s Certification, ¶ 12. As part of this work arrangement, Plaintiff claims that Defendants facilitated and paid for “approximately fifty (50) flights and for [his] lodging while [he] stay[ed] in Pennsylvania for [NINS's] business.” Id. Similarly, during his tenure as the Executive Director, at the direction of Catherine Ryan (“Ryan”), Chief Member of NINS's Board of Trustees, NINS prepared and submitted Plaintiff's tax paperwork to the State of New Jersey. Id.

         Nearly a year after being hired as Executive Director, around January 2016, Plaintiff was diagnosed with cancer. Compl., ¶13. Consequently, Plaintiff began treatment and was forced to take a leave of absence. Id. at ¶ 13; Pl.'s Certification, ¶ 3. At some point after beginning treatment, Plaintiff claims that Ryan directed him to conduct NINS's business from his home in New Jersey. Pl.'s Certification, ¶ 13. During that time, Ryan and another employee of NINS scheduled plans to travel to New Jersey to meet with Plaintiff to conduct NINS's business. Id.

         Around April 2016, without Plaintiff's knowledge, NINS hired a new Executive Director to replace Plaintiff. Compl., ¶ 15. Subsequently, Plaintiff was notified by Ryan that Plaintiff was being terminated, which Plaintiff believes was related to his cancer treatment. Pl.'s Certification ¶¶ 4-5; Compl., ¶ 17. At some point thereafter, Plaintiff retained an employment attorney in Pennsylvania relating to his potential wrongful termination claims. See Pl.'s Certification, ¶ 9.

         Plaintiff and NINS engaged in negotiations to resolve claims Plaintiff may have had against NINS. Id. at ¶ 6. An agreement was reached and mailed to Plaintiff in New Jersey. Id. The same day Plaintiff received the agreement, which was sent to him in New Jersey via Federal Express, NINS's attorney, in Pennsylvania, emailed Plaintiff revoking the agreement. Id. When Plaintiff inquired why the agreement had been revoked, NINS's attorney indicated that, in an electronic correspondence, “the decision to withdraw the offer was made in large part due to the content of your recent emails . . . .” Id. at ¶ 7.

         Later, Plaintiff “noticed that hundreds of [his] personal email[s] . . . had been deleted.”[2] Id. at ¶ 8. Plaintiff alleges that the emails served as evidence for his wrongful termination claim. Compl., ¶ 31. Plaintiff avers that he also noticed that files on his personal computer “had disappeared, ” some of which contained personal documents and an irreplaceable manuscript. Pl.'s Certification, ¶ 8.

         According to Plaintiff, NINS's letter sent to his attorney is evidence showing that Defendants accessed Plaintiff's computer. That letter read in part:

Simultaneous with [Plaintiff's] engaging in discussions with [Ryan] regarding the terms of his departure as NINS's Interim Executive Director, [Plaintiff] - while still a Trustee of NINS - was engaging in contemptible email messaging to a Father Ian Ker (Ker) and at least one other person in which your client disparaged NINS, acted in his own self-interest at the expense of NINS, and affirmatively sought to harm NINS's relationship with third parties.

Id. at ¶ 9.

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendants intentionally and unlawfully accessed, reviewed, and deleted his personal emails and files on his computer. See Compl., ¶¶ 24-27. There is no dispute that Defendants' alleged wrongful activities were taken while Plaintiff and his computer were in New Jersey. Id. at ¶¶ 30-32. Plaintiff names the Individual Defendants in addition to NINS because, he alleges, as members of NINS's Board of Directors, they approved and oversaw the unlawful intrusions into his emails and files. Id. at ¶¶ 7-8. Based on those allegations, Plaintiff asserts violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), 18 U.S.C. §1030, et seq., Invasion of Privacy, and violation of New Jersey's Computer Related Offense Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:38A-3. Id. at ¶¶ 27-41.

         In the instant matter, Defendants move to dismiss the complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(2). Defendants argue that their conduct related to Plaintiff is insufficient to meet the requisite minimum contacts with New Jersey for them to be subject to personal jurisdiction in this forum. Specifically, Defendants assert that their conduct was not expressly aimed or directed at New Jersey and they have no meaningful connection with New Jersey.


         I. Standard of Review

         “A federal court sitting in New Jersey has jurisdiction over parties to the extent provided under New Jersey state law.” Miller Yacht Sales, Inc. v. Smith, 384 F.3d 93, 96 (3d Cir. 2004) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 4(e); see also Carteret Sav. Bank, FA v. Shushan, 954 F.2d 141, 144 (3d Cir. 1992)). “[T]he New Jersey long-arm statute permits the exercise of personal jurisdiction to the fullest limits of due process.” IMO Indus., Inc. v. Kiekert AG, 155 F.3d 254, 259 (3d Cir. 1998) (citations omitted).

         In the context of a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(2), “when the court does not hold an evidentiary hearing on the motion to dismiss, the plaintiff need only establish a prima facie case of personal jurisdiction and the plaintiff is entitled to have its allegations taken as true and all factual disputes drawn in its favor.” Miller Yacht Sales, Inc., 384 F.3d at 97; see also Toys “R” Us, Inc. v. Step Two, S.A., 318 F.3d 446, 457 (3d Cir. 2003). Still, plaintiff “‘bears the burden to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, ' that personal jurisdiction is proper.” Cerciello v. Canale, 563 F. App'x 924, 925 n.1 (3d Cir. 2014) (quoting Carteret Sav. Bank, FA, 954 F.2d at 146). In order “[t]o meet that burden, [plaintiff] must ‘establish[ ] jurisdictional facts through sworn affidavits or other competent evidence.'” Id. (quoting Miller Yacht Sales, Inc., 384 F.3d at 101 n.6). “Once the plaintiff has shown minimum contacts, the burden shifts to the defendant, who must show that the assertion of jurisdiction would be unreasonable.” Ameripay, LLC v. Ameripay Payroll, Ltd., 334 F.Supp.2d 629, 633 (D.N.J. 2004) (citing Mellon Bank (East) PSFS v. Farino, 960 F.2d 1217, 1226 (3d Cir. 1992)).

         II. Personal Jurisdiction

         To subject a defendant to personal jurisdiction in New Jersey, Due Process requires that the defendant “have certain minimum contacts with [New Jersey] such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend ‘traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.'” Int'l Shoe Co. v. State of Wash., Office of Unemployment Comp. and Placement, 326 U.S. 310, 316 (1945) (quoting Milliken v. Meyer, 311 U.S. 457, 463 (1940)). “In judging minimum contacts, a court properly focuses on ‘the relationship among the defendant, the forum, and the litigation.'” Calder v. Jones, 465 U.S. 783, 788 (1984) (quoting Shaffer v. Heitner, 433 U.S. 186, 204 (1977)). “Personal jurisdiction may be exercised under two distinct theories, a defendant's general or claim-specific contacts with the forum.” Remick v. Manfredy, 238 F.3d 248, 255 (3d Cir. 2001); Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court, No. 16-466, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 3873, at *10 (Jun. 19, 2017).

         Here, Plaintiff concedes that Defendants “lack[ ] the ‘continuous and systematic' contacts to satisfy the requirements for general jurisdiction.” Pl.'s Br. 3. Thus, the question before the Court is whether there is claim-specific jurisdiction over Defendants, which “depends on an affiliatio[n] between the forum and the underlying controversy (i.e., an activity or an occurrence that takes place in the forum State and is therefore subject to the State's regulation).” Walden v. Fiore, 134 S.Ct. 1115, 1121 n.6 (2014) (alterations original) (quoting Goodyear Dunlop Tires Operations, S.A. v. Brown, 564 U.S. 915, 919 (2011) (internal quotations and citations omitted)).

         A. Specific Jurisdiction

         To examine whether specific jurisdiction exists, courts apply a three-part inquiry:

(1) Defendant's activities must be purposefully directed at the forum;
(2) “[P]laintiff's claim[s] must arise out of or relate to at least one of those specific activities”; and
(3) The assertion of jurisdiction must be reasonable or “otherwise comport[] with fair play and substantial justice.”

Marten v. Godwin, 499 F.3d 290, 296 (3d Cir. 2007) (internal quotations and citations omitted); Bristol-Myers, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 3873, at *11. Relevant here, where plaintiff is the focus of an out-of-state defendant's allegedly tortious activity, specific personal jurisdiction is determined by the “effects test” adopted in Calder, see Remick, 238 F.3d at 258 (“[T]he Supreme Court set forth the ‘effects test' for determining personal jurisdiction over nonresident defendants who allegedly committed an intentional tort outside the forum.”), which inherently assesses whether defendants “purposefully directed [their] activities toward the residents of the forum state or otherwise purposefully avail[ed themselves] of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum State.” IMO Indus., Inc., 155 F.3d at 259 (internal quotations and citations omitted); Verizon Online Servs., Inc. v. Ralsky, 203 F.Supp.2d 601, 612-16 (E.D. Va. 2002); see also Picot v. Weston, 780 F.3d 1206, 1214 (9th Cir. 2015).

         In this case, Plaintiff alleges that the out-of-state Defendants hacked into his computer and deleted emails and other data, which constitute tortious activity. In that regard, there is no dispute that the Calder “effects test” applies here, because whether tortious conduct is committed via the Internet or in more traditional means, does not change the inquiry of the location where Defendants purposefully aimed their alleged cyberactivity. See Ralsky, 203 F.Supp.2d at 612-17; accord Zippo Mfg. Co. v. Zippo DotCom, Inc., 952 F.Supp. 1119, 1124 (W.D. Pa. 1997) (explaining that determinations of minimum contacts should not lead to “[d]ifferent results . . . simply ...

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