Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Part I: Insufficient Contacts to Establish Personal Jurisdiction

In two decisions by two different panels relating to the same dispute, the Fourth DCA held there were not sufficient contacts to establish personal jurisdiction. The other decision is discussed here.

Alleging that Columbia "was 'doing business' in Broward County, Florida through its alumni association, interactive internet classrooms, and an interactive website providing online courses that allow students to obtain graduate degrees and professional certificates. The complaint [also] pointed to lawsuits filed by Columbia in Florida where the Trustees had 'availed themselves of the benefits offered by the Florida judicial system'.”

In Florida, there is a two part test required to establish personal jurisdiction over a defendant. "First, there must be sufficient facts to bring the action within the ambit of the long-arm statute; if the statute applies, the next inquiry is whether there are sufficient 'minimum contacts' to satisfy due process requirements. 'Both parts must be satisfied for a court to exercise personal jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant'.”

In this case, the Fourth DCA held there were insufficient contacts to satisfy the Florida long arm statute and, therefore, did not reach the issue of minimum contacts.

"Ocean World assert[ed] two statutory bases for jurisdiction. First, that Columbia 'personally or through an agent' committed a 'tortious act within this state' under section 48.193(1)(b). Second, that Columbia is subject to general jurisdiction because it is 'engaged in substantial and not isolated activity within this state' under section 48.193(2)."

The other panel held "that Reiss did not have those minimum contacts with Florida necessary to support personal jurisdiction. If there is no jurisdiction over Reiss, the purported tortfeasor, there c a n be no jurisdiction under section 48.193(1)(b) over Columbia, which supposedly acted through Reiss."

The panel then looked to determine if there was sufficient contacts to establish general jurisdiction. An assertion of general jurisdiction under section 48.193(2) requires a 'showing of ‘continuous and systematic general business contacts’ with this state...The continuous and systematic general business contacts sufficient to confer general jurisdiction present a 'much higher threshold' than those contacts necessary to support specific jurisdiction...Florida cases have found 'continuous systematic business contacts' to confer general jurisdiction where a nonresident defendant’s activities are extensive and pervasive...To establish general jurisdiction under section 48.193(2), Ocean World relies on four types of activities. Even lumped together, these activities do not rise to the level of 'continuous and systematic general business contacts' with Florida that would support a finding of general jurisdiction...[Further] Columbia is correct that its internet program does not satisfy the requirements of section 48.193(2) because it does not amount to 'substantial and not isolated activity within this state.' Only two students with Florida addresses were enrolled in online courses offered through the Video Network. 'The mere existence of a website does not show that a defendant is directing its business activities towards every forum where the website is visible.'...Columbia’s contacts with Florida through the website were not substantial."

The other argument made by Oean World was that since Columbia has contingent interest in property, it should be subject to personal jurisdiction. "As Columbia points out, the giving of a remainder interest is contingent on the election of the donor and does not depend on the acquiescence or even knowledge of the receiving party. Nothing demonstrates such a pervasive, commercial property ownership that would amount to a continuous and systematic business activity in Florida. Section 48.193(1)(c) would support a finding of specific jurisdiction for a cause of action arising from owning, using, or possessing real property in Florida, but there is no contention here that Ocean World’s causes of action arose from such ownership by Columbia."

Further, Columbia’s participation in other lawsuits in Florida concerning subject matters separate and distinct from this lawsuit does not create personal jurisdiction over the university in this case. The general rule is that by bringing an action, a plaintiff “subjects itself to the jurisdiction of the court and to such lawful orders which are thereafter entered with respect to the subject matter of the action.”

Disclaimer: Ronald Tomassi, Jr., now of GrayRobinson, P.A., was involved in the above-referenced action.


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