Third Circuit Answers The Question: Can a Texan Living In Georgia Sue Two Dozen Florida Defendants In New Jersey Federal Court?

by: Peter J. Gallagher (LinkedIn)

I don’t usually write about personal jurisdiction because it is . . . well . . . a little boring. But I do enjoy creative legal arguments (including creative arguments about jurisdiction), so I am going to make an exception here.

The Third Circuit recently issued its decision in in Robinson v. Section 23 Property Owner’s Association, Inc., which is the latest in what appears to be a running battle between plaintiff and more than two dozen defendants arising out of the foreclosure of defendant’s mother’s home. The district court described the various lawsuits plaintiff filed as follows:

The subject of all of [plaintiff’s] cases, including this case, arises out of his residence at his mother’s home in Florida. Beginning with disputes over the enforcement of deed restrictions, such as parking and property maintenance, Plaintiff’s cases have evolved into claims against essentially every person or entity that has been involved either directly or indirectly in the ultimate foreclosure of the . . . house and his resulting eviction from the property. The main thrust of Plaintiff’s claims is that all the Defendants have conspired to illegally purchase his mother’s home and steal all of his personal and intellectual property inside. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants have done so to quash his investigation of their international money laundering and fraud scheme.

If this sounds like a Florida-centric dispute, it is. None of the defendants had any meaningful connection to New Jersey, so they all moved to dismiss plaintiff’s lawsuit for lack of jurisdiction. In response, plaintiff made several, traditional jurisdictional arguments, including that defendants were subject to jurisdiction in New Jersey because his mother currently lived in New Jersey and because she had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in New Jersey and listed the Florida property as an asset in her bankruptcy petition.

But plaintiff also raised a less-than-traditional jurisdictional argument. He claimed that defendants had consented to jurisdiction in New Jersey because of a document, which he referred to as “Terms and Conditions,” that he posted on his mother’s Florida home while he lived there. The Terms and Conditions read: “By entering the property . . . you agree to litigate any and all claims . . . directed towards [plaintiff and his family] in the U.S. District Court chosen by [plaintiff and his family].” Plaintiff eventually chose to litigate in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, therefore, he argued, all defendants had consented to jurisdiction in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey via the Terms and Conditions.

The district court rejected all of plaintiff’s arguments, including his argument that defendants consented to jurisdiction through the Terms and Conditions:

Putting aside all the obvious deficiencies of that purported “contract,” including the fact that most of the Defendants did not actually enter the residence while he was living there, a “contract may provide a basis for the exercise of personal jurisdiction that meets due process standards, but a contract alone does not ‘automatically establish sufficient minimum contacts in the other party’s home forum.’ ”

Plaintiff appealed. Here is how the Third Circuit began its opinion, which suggested how it was likely to rule on jurisdiction:

[Plaintiff] alleges that he is a Texan living in Georgia. He filed in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey an amended complaint naming as defendants a collection of Florida-based law firms and lawyers, as well as other Florida-based individuals and entities. It did not get any better for plaintiff. The Third Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision, including its holding on plaintiff’s Terms and Conditions.

It did not get any better for plaintiff. The Third Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision, including its holding on plaintiff’s argument that personal jurisdiction was established through the Terms and Conditions.  

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