Designer Skin LLC v. S & L Vitamins, Inc., et al.
Stanley Young v. New Haven Advocate, et al.
No. 01-2340 (4th Cir., December 13, 2002)
Reversing the court below, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals holds that Virginia's Federal Courts may not exercise personal jurisdiction over two small Connecticut newspapers which published articles on the Internet that allegedly defamed a Virginia resident. To be able to assert personal jurisdiction over the newspapers, the court held that they must "(1) direct electronic activity into the State, (2) with the manifested intent of engaging in business or other interactions within the State, and (3) that activity creates, in a person within the State, a potential cause of action cognizable in the State's courts." The mere posting of an article on a website, even one that addressed conditions in Virginia prisons, was not enough to satisfy this burden. Because the newspapers were small Connecticut-based publications which served almost exclusively Connecticut readers, they would not be subject to jurisdiction in Virginia courts for libel claims arising out of their publication on the articles at issue on the Internet.
To ease overcrowding in its prisons, Connecticut entered into an arrangement to transfer some of its inmates to Wallens Ridge State Prison in Virginia, of which plaintiff Stanley Young was the Warden. This arrangement engendered substantial debate in Connecticut. As a result, each of the defendant newspapers published articles on this subject, which they posted on the Internet. Included within these articles were unfavorable comments about Wallens Ridge.
Alleging that he was defamed by various statements made in these articles, Warden Young commenced this libel suit in Virginia against the newspapers and the reporters who worked on the articles.
Defendants moved to dismiss the suit, arguing that the court lacked personal jurisdiction over them. Defendant New Haven Advocate is a free newspaper published once a week in New Haven, Connecticut. The Advocate has a small number of subscribers, none of whom reside in Virginia. Its content is geared largely to a Connecticut-based readership. Defendant Hartford Courant is a daily newspaper distributed in and serving Hartford, Connecticut. At the time the articles in question were published, the Courant had eight mail subscribers residing in Virginia. Neither newspaper solicits subscriptions in Virginia, nor maintains any offices or employees within the State. None of the defendants' employees visited Virginia in connection with the preparation of the articles in question. Their contact with Virginia was limited to telephone interviews with a Virginia resident. Both newspapers post some of the content from their publications on websites available to Virginia residents.
Holding that the court lacked personal jurisdiction over the defendants, the Fourth Circuit reversed the District Court, and dismissed the suit.
To assert specific personal jurisdiction over a defendant, the plaintiff must show that the defendant "(1) directs electronic activity into the State, (2) with the manifested intent of engaging in business or other interactions within the State, and (3) that activity creates, in a person within the State, a potential cause of action cognizable in the State's courts."
Finding that the newspapers aimed their publications at a Connecticut audience, the court held that they could not be subjected to personal jurisdiction in Virginia because they did not manifest an intent to engage in business or other interactions in Virginia. Said the court:
The facts in this case establish that the newspapers' websites, as well as the articles in question, were aimed at a Connecticut audience. The newspapers did not post materials on the Internet with the manifest intent on targeting Virginia readers. Accordingly, the newspapers could not have "reasonably anticipate[d] being hailed into court [in Virginia] to answer for the truth of the statements made in their article[s]." Calder, 465 U.S. at 790 (quotation omitted). In sum, the newspapers do not have sufficient Internet contacts with Virginia to permit the district court to exercise specific jurisdiction over them.
In reaching this conclusion, the Court determined that the focus of the articles at issue was Connecticut's prison transfer policy, and not the Virginia prison system. It also rejected plaintiff's argument that the court could exercise personal jurisdiction over the defendant newspapers because "(1) the newspapers, knowing that Young was a Virginia resident, intentionally discussed and defamed him in their articles, (2) the newspapers posted the articles on their websites, which were accessible in Virginia, and (3) the primary effects of the defamatory statements on Young's reputation were felt in Virginia."