Specific Personal Jurisdiction in Federal Class Actions: The Wait Continues

Last month, the Supreme Court denied certiorari in a case that would determine whether the Court’s 2017 decision in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California would extend to federal class actions.

In Bristol-Myers Squibb, the Supreme Court ruled that in mass tort actions, state courts do not have specific personal jurisdiction over claims by plaintiffs who were not injured in and do not live in the forum state. There, a national group of plaintiffs sued a New York and Delaware-based pharmaceutical company in California court, alleging the defendant’s drug damaged their health. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that the trial court did not have specific personal jurisdiction over claims by plaintiffs who were not injured by the defendant’s contacts with the forum. The Court reasoned that plaintiffs who were prescribed the drug and bought the drug somewhere other than California could not demonstrate the requisite affiliation between California and their individual claims.

Following Bristol-Myers Squibb, defendants in class action suits, rather than suits with individual plaintiffs, began to use this specific personal jurisdiction limitation as a means of dismissing claims by class members who were not injured in the forum. Class action defendants have argued that if each individual mass tort plaintiff’s claim must have a connection to the forum, the same should be true for each individual class member. In other words, there is no aggregate-litigation exception to the constitutional requirement of specific personal jurisdiction.

While district courts have reached differing conclusions on this argument, only one circuit court has had the question come before it. In Mussat v. IQVIA, Inc., a national class sued a Delaware and Pennsylvania-based defendant in Illinois federal court, alleging the defendant violated federal law when it sent unsolicited faxes to the class members without a required opt-out notice. The defendant moved to dismiss all claims by non-resident class members who were not injured in Illinois, arguing that Bristol-Myers Squibb required each class member to show an affiliation between the forum and his or her specific claim. The Seventh Circuit denied this motion, extending the district court’s specific personal jurisdiction to claims by absent class members who lacked any connection to Illinois. The court reasoned that absent class members were not full parties to the case for jurisdictional purposes.

Although the Supreme Court denied certiorari in Mussat, the Court has an opportunity to provide guidance on the boundaries of specific personal jurisdiction in its upcoming decision in Ford Motor Co. v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court. There, individual plaintiffs sued Ford for wrongful death in Montana and Minnesota. While Ford does sell cars in Montana and Minnesota, the specific cars that allegedly caused the deaths were sold elsewhere and passed through a series of owners before reaching the plaintiffs. The Court will determine whether Ford’s unrelated sales within Montana and Minnesota are sufficient to establish an affiliation between the forums and the plaintiffs’ underlying claims such that specific personal jurisdiction is present.

The case was argued last October and will be decided in the coming months. If the Court finds that Ford’s contacts with the forum must relate more directly to the plaintiffs’ claims, class action defendants may be able to challenge jurisdiction over claims by class members without a connection to the forum. If specific personal jurisdiction were limited in this fashion, class actions would either have to be filed in the defendant’s home state or state of incorporation, such that the court had general personal jurisdiction, or limited to class members who were injured by the defendant’s specific contacts with a particular forum.