Personal Jurisdiction in Internet Defamation Lawsuits

Internet defamation and cyber smear cases can often turn on personal jurisdiction issues if Plaintiff is suing an out of state defendant for comments made on the internet where the Defendant has little or no connection to Illinois. The issue of jurisdiction turns on whether the defendant targeted Illinois Plaintiff in Illinois. We have successfully litigated motions to dismiss on this issue successfully or used lack of personal jurisdiction to favorably settle internet defamation claims for our clients.

Once a defendant has moved for dismissal based on lack of personal jurisdiction, the plaintiff bears the burden of demonstrating the existence of jurisdiction. In ruling on a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, a federal district court sitting in diversity must apply the personal jurisdiction rules of the state in which it sits. Under the governing Illinois statute, Illinois permits its courts to exercise personal jurisdiction up to the limits of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. 735 ILCS 5/2-209(c). Since Illinois law does not indicate that Illinois' constitutional standards would differ from federal law, "the state statutory and federal constitutional inquiries merge" into one analysis.

The Federal Due Process Clause authorizes personal jurisdiction over out-of-state defendants when the defendant has "certain minimum contacts with [the state] such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend 'traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.' " Courts recognize two types of personal jurisdiction: general and specific. General jurisdiction is "all-purpose"; it exists only "when the [party's] affiliations with the State in which suit is brought are so constant and pervasive as to render it essentially at home in the forum State." Specific jurisdiction is case-specific; the claim must be linked to the activities or contacts with the forum. A defamation plaintiff can prevail in asserting personal jurisdiction for online posts if either general jurisdiction or specific jurisdiction exists.

General Jurisdiction

In recent years, the Supreme Court has clarified and raised the bar for general jurisdiction and held that general jurisdiction should not be lightly found. As the Seventh Circuit Federal Court of appeals in the Tamburo case emphasized, "the threshold for general jurisdiction is high; the contacts must be sufficiently extensive and pervasive to approximate physical presence". Isolated or sporadic contacts are insufficient for general jurisdiction. General jurisdiction exists only when the organization is "essentially at home" in the forum State.

With respect to websites or internet posts, the maintenance of a website or posting on the internet, without more, is not sufficient to establish general jurisdiction. uBID, Inc. v. GoDaddy Grp. Inc., 623 F.3d 421, 425-26 (7th Cir. 2010) (no general jurisdiction despite "extensive and deliberate" web-based contacts); Hayward, 2015 WL 5444787 at *6; Jackson v. Calif. Newspapers P'ship, 406 F. Supp. 2d 893, 895 (N.D. Ill. 2005) (California newspaper's website insufficient to confer jurisdiction in Illinois for defamation claim by Illinois resident).

When an out-of-state defendant, who has made allegedly defamatory internet posts, does not reside, work, or own any property in Illinois and has never transacted business or have any other connection to the State then general personal jurisdiction would be lacking.

Specific Jurisdiction for Defamation Targeted at Illinois

Specific personal jurisdiction can only exist when a plaintiff's claims arise out of the defendant's constitutionally sufficient contacts with the forum state. uBID, 623 F.3d at 425; Bittman v. Fox, 2015 WL 5612061 at *3 (N.D. Ill. Sep. 23, 2015). Specific jurisdiction requires that: (1) the defendant has purposely directed his activities at the forum state or purposefully availed himself of the privilege of conducting business in the state, and (2) the alleged injury arises out of the defendant's forum-related activities. For cases involving torts allegedly committed over the Internet, the Seventh Circuit has stated that the three requirements for specific personal jurisdiction are: (1) intentional conduct; (2) expressly aimed at the forum state; and (3) with the defendant's knowledge that the effects would be felt (plaintiff would be injured) in the forum state.

Recently, the Supreme Court held that the situs of plaintiff's injury is relevant but not sufficient to establish minimum contacts. Walden v. Fiore, 134 S. Ct. 1115 (2014)). The Walden court emphasized that the relation between the foreign defendant and the forum state "must arise out of contacts that the 'defendant himself creates with the forum State." The analysis looks to the defendant's contacts with the forum State itself, not the defendant's contacts with persons who reside there. The Walden court also stated that "the plaintiff cannot be the only link between the defendant and the forum", but it "is the defendant's conduct that must form the necessary connection with the forum State." Advanced Tactical Ordnance Sys., LLC v. Real Action Paintball, Inc., (7th Cir. 2014) (holding: (1) de minimis sales in forum would not support personal jurisdiction; (2) the foreseeability of plaintiff's injury in the forum, was not relevant to whether the defendant itself had created contacts with the forum state; (3) the sending of two emails to a list of subscribers that included Indiana residents was not enough to establish that Indiana was targeted; and (4) maintenance of an interactive website did not show that the defendant targeted Indiana).

Subjecting a foreign defendant to personal jurisdiction requires not only an alleged injury in the forum state, but "something more" directed at that state. According to the Young court, if a publisher of online content does not manifest intent to reach the subject forum, even if the content is available for anyone to read, including people in the subject forum, then there is not sufficient contacts with the forum to permit the exercise of specific personal jurisdiction.

In a recent decision in the federal court in Chicago, the Court in Bittman held that there can be no specific personal jurisdiction over a defendant for alleged defamation and false light for internet postings, where those internet postings were not directed at Illinois. The Bittman court dismissed plaintiff's complaint for ack of personal jurisdiction where the complaint failed to allege that defendant created any contacts with the state of Illinois other than the fact that his website may be accessed by Illinois residents. (the plaintiff's connection to the forum state cannot be the hook providing personal jurisdiction). The Bittman court held that operating even an "interactive" website should not open a defendant up to personal jurisdiction "in every spot on the planet where that interactive website is accessible".

In cases in which the defendant's alleged contacts with the forum state occurred online, the Seventh Circuit has noted that the relevant inquiry typically "boils down" to whether the defendant has purposely exploited or in some way targeted the forum state's market. "If the defendant merely operates a website, even a 'highly interactive' website, that is accessible from, but does not target, the forum state, then the defendant may not be haled into court in that state without offending the Constitution." "Courts should be careful in resolving questions of personal jurisdiction involving online contacts to ensure that a defendant is not haled into court simply because the defendant owns or operates a website that is accessible in the forum state, even if that site is 'interactive.' " ); Thus, "[a] plaintiff cannot satisfy the Colder standard [i.e., the "express aiming" test] simply by showing that the defendant maintained a website accessible to residents of the forum state and alleging that the defendant caused harm through that website."); Apex Energy Group LLC v. Schweihs, 2015 WL 5613375, at *6-7 (S.D. Ind. Sep. 23, 2015)(maintaining a website that received visitors from Indiana did not show that alleged tortious conduct was expressly aimed at Indiana).

"Under Illinois law, at a minimum, the court must find an act by which the defendant purposefully avails himself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum State, thus invoking the benefits and protections of its laws. The focus is on the defendant's activities within Illinois, not on those of the plaintiff." Common to Illinois Court's analysis of minimum contacts is "that a nonresident defendant either "purposefully direct" its activities toward the forum state or actually engage in activities there." In defamation cases, courts look to whether the allegedly defamatory conduct was specifically directed at Illinois.

You can view a recent Circuit Court of Cook County decision where we prevailed on a personal jurisdiction motion to dismiss in an internet defamation claim here.

Our law firm has succeeded in having a number of internet defamation cases brought against our clients dismissed or settled for lack of personal jurisdiction in state and federal courts. Personal jurisdiction issues in internet defamation cases continues to change and evolve. Internet defamation and cyber smear attorneys must have extensive knowledge of the intricacies of personal jurisdiction issues. Our attorneys have over thirty years of experience in prosecuting and defending defamation cases. We are committed to protecting our clients from harmful cyber smears and online defamation and to protecting clients who have been wrongfully sued for defamation when they are simply expressing strongly held negative opinions. Located in Chicago and Elmhurst, Illinois, we have won judgments or settlements for our clients in defamation and libel suits throughout the Chicago area. To arrange for a consultation with one of our attorneys, contact us online or call at 630-333-0333.

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