Random Florida-to-Illinois Texts, Emails and Phone Calls Not Enough to Subject Fla. LLC to IL Jurisdiction

In McGlasson v. BYB Extreme Fighting Series, LLC, 2017 WL 2193235 (C.D.Ill. 2017), the plaintiff sued a Florida LLC and two Florida residents for pilfering the plaintiff’s idea to host MMA fights on cruise ships off the coast of Florida.

Plaintiff claimed that after he sent a rough video of the concept to them, the defendants hijacked the concept and then formed their own MMA-at-sea event, causing the plaintiff monetary damages.

All defendants moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims on the basis that they weren’t subject to Illinois jurisdiction.

The Court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss and in doing so, discussed the requisite contacts for an Illinois court to exercise jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant who commits an intentional tort.

In breach of contract actions, personal jurisdiction turns on whether a defendant purposefully avails itself or the privilege of doing business in the forum state. With an intentional tort defendant, by contrast, the court looks at whether a defendant “purposefully directed” his conduct at the forum state.

Purposely directing activity at a state requires a finding of (1) intentional conduct, (2) expressly aimed at the forum state, with (3) defendant’s knowledge the effects would be felt in the forum state.  If plaintiff makes all three showings, he establishes that a defendant purposefully directed its activity at the forum state.

A plaintiff in an intentional tort case cannot, however, rely on his own unilateral activity to support jurisdiction over a defendant.  Similarly, a defendant’s contact with a third party with no connection to a forum state isn’t relevant to the jurisdictional analysis.

Here, the lone Illinois contacts alleged of defendants were a handful of emails, phone calls and text messages sent to the Illinois resident plaintiff.  To strengthen his case for jurisdiction over the Florida defendants, plaintiff alleged he suffered an economic injury in Illinois.

Rejecting plaintiff’s argument, the court viewed e-mail as not existing “in any location at all:”  instead, it bounces from server to server and the connection between where an e-mail is opened and where a lawsuit is filed is too weak a link to subject an out-of-state sender to jurisdiction in a foreign state.

The Court also noted that (a plaintiff’s) suffering economic injury in Illinois isn’t enough, standing alone, to confer personal jurisdiction over a foreign resident.  The focus is instead whether the defendant’s conduct “connects him to [Illinois] in a meaningful way.”

Since plaintiff’s MMA-at-sea idea had no connection to Illinois and the defendant’s sporadic phone calls, emails and texts weren’t enough to tie him to Illinois, the Court lacked personal jurisdiction over the Florida defendants.

Take-aways:

1/ In intentional tort setting, a foreign defendant’s conduct must be purposefully directed at a forum state for that state to exercise personal jurisdiction over the defendant;

2/ plaintiff’s unilateral actions vis a vis an out-of-state defendant don’t factor into the jurisdictional calculus;

3/ A defendant’s episodic emails, texts and phone calls to an Illinois resident likely won’t be enough to subject the defendant to personal jurisdiction in Illinois.

 

Hotel Titan Escapes Multi-Million Dollar Fla. Judgment Where No Joint Venture in Breach of Contract Case

In today’s featured case, the plaintiff construction firm contracted with a vacation resort operator in the Bahamas partly owned by a Marriott hotel subsidiary. When the resort  breached the contract, the plaintiff sued and won a $7.5M default judgment in a Bahamas court. When that judgment proved uncollectable, the plaintiff sued to enforce the judgment in Florida state court against Marriott – arguing it was responsible for the judgment since it was part of a joint venture that owned the resort company.  The jury ruled in favor of the plaintiff and against Marriott who then appealed.

Reversing the judgment, the Florida appeals court first noted that under Florida law, a joint venture is an association of persons or legal entities to carry out a single enterprise for profit.

In addition to proving the single enterprise for profit, the joint venture plaintiff must demonstrate (i) a community of interest in the performance of the common purpose, (ii) joint control or right to control the venture; (iii) a joint proprietary interest in the subject matter of the venture; (4) the right to share in the profits; and (5) a duty to share in any losses that may be sustained.

All elements must be established. If only one is absent, there’s no joint venture – even if the parties intended to form a joint venture from the outset.

The formation of a corporation almost always signals there is no joint venture. This is because joint ventures generally follow partnership law which follows a different set of rules than do corporations. So, by definition, corporate shareholders cannot be joint venturers by definition.

Otherwise, a plaintiff could “have it both ways” and claim that a given business entity was both a corporation and a joint venture. This would defeat the liability-limiting function of the corporate form.

A hallmark of joint control in a joint venture context is mutual agency: the ability of one joint venturer to bind another concerning the venture’s subject matter.  The reverse is also true: where one party cannot bind the other, there is no joint venture.

Here, none of the alleged joint venturers had legal authority to bind the others within the scope of the joint venture. The plaintiff failed to offer any evidence of joint control over either the subject of the venture or the other venturers’ conduct.

There was also no proof that one joint venture participant could bind the others. Since Marriott was only a minority shareholder in the resort enterprise, the court found it didn’t exercise enough control over the defaulted resort to subject it (Marriott) to liability for the resort’s breach of contract.

The court also ruled in Marriott’s favor on the plaintiff’s fraudulent inducement claim premised on Marriott’s failure to disclose the resort’s precarious economic status in order to  entice the plaintiff to contract with the resort.

Under Florida law, a fraud in the inducement claim predicated on a failure to disclose material information requires a plaintiff to prove a defendant had a duty to disclose information. A duty to disclose can be found (1) where there is a fiduciary duty among parties; or (2) where a party partially discloses certain facts such that he should have to divulge the rest of the related facts known to it.

Here, neither situation applied. Marriott owed no fiduciary duty to the plaintiff and didn’t transmit incomplete information to the plaintiff that could saddle the hotel chain with a duty to disclose.

Take-aways:

A big economic victory for Marriott. Clearly the plaintiff was trying to fasten liability to a deep-pocketed defendant several layers removed from the breaching party. The case shows how strictly some courts will scrutinize a joint venture claim. If there is no joint control or mutual agency, there is no joint venture. Period.

The case also solidifies business tort axiom that a fraudulent inducement by silence claim will only prevail if there is a duty to disclose – which almost always requires the finding of a fiduciary relationship. In situations like here, where there is a high-dollar contract between sophisticated commercial entities, it will usually be impossible to prove a fiduciary relationship.

Source: Marriott International, Inc. v. American Bridge Bahamas, Ltd., 2015 WL 8936529

 

Process Server’s Return of Service Qualifies As Public Records and ‘Regularly Conducted Business Activity’ Hearsay Exceptions – Florida Appeals Court

My experience with the hearsay evidence rules usually involves trying to get a business record like an invoice or spreadsheet into evidence at trial or on summary judgment.  The business records hearsay exception is found at Illinois Evidence Rule 803(6) and mirrors the Federal counterpart.  “Exception” in the context of hearsay evidence means a document is hearsay (an out-of-court statement used to prove the truth of the matter asserted) and would normally be excluded but still gets in evidence because the document (or other piece of evidence) has an element of reliability that satisfies the court that the document is what it appears to be.

Occasionally though, I’ve found that a working knowledge of some of the more obscure (to me at least) hearsay exceptions can in some cases lead to a victory or at least resurrect a rapidly flagging case.

Davidian v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, NA, 2015 WL 5827124 (Fla. 4th DCA 2015) (http://www.4dca.org/opinions/Oct.%202015/10-7-15/4D14-2431.op.pdf) a recent Florida appeals court decision, examines some hearsay exceptions as they apply to a process server’s sworn return of service and the persons served are challenging service.

Chase Bank filed a foreclosure suit against defendants/appellants (a husband and wife) and filed returns of service signed by Chase’s process server who certified that he served both appellants at the same time on the same date. The appellants moved to quash service of process on the grounds they were never served. The trial court denied the motion leading to this appeal.

The appeals court affirmed.  It held the appellants failed to show by clear and convincing proof that the returns of service were deficient.

In Florida, the burden of proving proper service of process is on the suing party and the return of service is evidence of whether service was validly made.  A return of service is presumed to be valid and the party contesting service must overcome the presumption by clear and convincing evidence.  A return of service is technically hearsay since it’s an out-of-court statement used to show its truth – that service of summons was in fact made on a party.

Two hearsay rule exceptions recognized not only by Florida courts but various state and Federal courts include the public records and the “regularly conducted business activity” exceptions.  Fla. Stat. s. 90.801, 803(6), (8).

Here, the court found the service return admissible under both exceptions.  The return was a public record – presumably because it was filed as part of the case record.  The return also qualified as evidence of regularly conducted business activity since the process server stated in his affidavit that was his regular practice to prepare such an affidavit detailing the date, time and manner of service.

The appeals court also rejected appellants’ argument that the service returns were defeated by their counter-affidavits in which they denied receiving the summons and complaint.  When faced with a service return and a defendant claiming he/she wasn’t served, the court makes a credibility determination after an evidentiary hearing.   Factual determinations are typically not disturbed on appeal.  The court found that the trial court was in a better position to judge the credibility of the witnesses and upheld the motion to quash’s denial.

Take-aways:

This case presents application of hearsay exceptions in an unorthodox factual setting.  The court expanded the scope of the public records and regularly-conducted-business-activity exceptions to encompass a process server’s return of service.  This case and others  like it validate process servers’ sworn returns and make it easier for plaintiffs to clear service of process hurdles where a defendant claims to have never been served.