Not so long arm of the law: no personal jurisdiction over out-of-state attorney who joint ventures with Texas counsel

Short Arms

In Mitchell v. Freese & Goss, PLLC (July 15, 2016), the Dallas Court of Appeals considered an appeal of the denial of a special appearance by Mitchell, a Mississippi attorney sued in Dallas County by a Texas law firm, Freese & Goss. Mitchell and Freese & Goss had a joint venture to represent Mississippi clients in litigation in Mississippi. After the cases settled, there was a dispute over attorney’s fees. Mitchell sued Freese & Goss in Mississippi and Freese & Goss brought this suit in Dallas County alleging wrongful conduct by Mitchell adversely affecting the joint venture. Mitchell filed a special appearance, which was denied. Mitchell then filed an interlocutory appeal.

On appeal, Freese & Goss asserted that the trial court had personal jurisdiction over the claims against Mitchell because the dispute arose out of Mitchell’s contacts with Texas. Specifically, Mitchell had a business relationship with Freese & Goss for the purpose of litigating the Mississippi claims, Mitchell participated in meetings and phone calls with Freese & Goss, the suit concerned payments to be made by Freese & Goss, Mitchell solicited clients to sue Freese & Goss, and those acts were specifically directed toward causing injury to appellees in Texas.

The Dallas Court of Appeals reversed and rendered a judgment that the Court lacked personal jurisdiction over the claims asserted against Mitchell. It held that merely contracting with Freese & Goss, a Texas resident, is insufficient for jurisdictional purposes. The relationship focused on activities in Mississippi, where the litigation was to be conducted, and Freese & Goss’s unilateral activities in Texas were not relevant to the analysis. Nor did the fact that some of the clients eventually moved to Texas render Mitchell susceptible to suit in Texas because “the mere existence of an attorney-client relationship unaccompanied by other sufficient contacts with the forum, does not confer personal jurisdiction….” Finally, the fact that Mitchell might have caused their shared clients to sue Freese & Goss did not confer jurisdiction because his alleged activities took place in Mississippi, and it is not enough that the effects of a tort will be felt in Texas to confer personal jurisdiction. Because Mitchell did not purposefully avail himself the privilege of doing business in Texas, the Dallas Court of Appeals reversed and rendered judgment.

Mitchell v. Freese & Goss, PLLC (July 15, 2016)

In the Battle of Animal Control vs. Ayn Rand, the Court of Appeals Washes Its Hands. As Should We All.

One thing every lawyer in Texas learns early on is that if you want to challenge personal jurisdiction, you have to file a special appearance before you answer the petition. Critter Control, Inc. sought to avoid that waiver point by filing a motion to withdraw its original answer in favor of a subsequently filed special appearance, which the trial court denied. Critter Control filed for interlocutory appeal, and Galt Strategies, LLC filed a motion to dismiss for lack of appellate jurisdiction. The Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal because it did not challenge the denial of the special appearance, but the Court notably did not foreclose the stratagem of moving to withdraw the answer in order to assert the untimely special appearance.

Critter Control, Inc. v. Galt Strategies, LLC, No. 05-15-01011-CV

For Mandamus, Two Months Is Not an Unreasonable Wait

On July 10, the district court orally denied the special appearance of Ann Stokley. The court did not sign a written order, however, which left Stokley unable to pursue an interlocutory appeal. On September 15, Stokley filed a petition for writ of mandamus with the Dallas Court of Appeals. Two days later, that Court has issued a brief memorandum petition denying relief. Although a trial court abuses its discretion when it fails to rule within a reasonable time, the Court could not conclude that the trial court had done so here in light of “the trial court’s actual knowledge of the motion, whether its refusal to act is overt, the state of the court’s docket, and the existence of other judicial and administrative matters which must be addressed first.” Ms. Stokley will presumably pursue an interlocutory appeal sometime after the trial court issues a written order.

In re Stokley, No. 05-15-01110-CV

A Dispatch From the Surprisingly Litigious World of Theater Poster Collecting

Readers may recall the recent dust-up over a collection of movie posters held by an auction house. In a new case, the disputed collection consists of Broadway theater window cards, which a Texas resident had shipped to an Internet reseller in Vermont. The owner filed suit in Dallas, alleging the reseller had breached the parties’ oral contract by failing to pay him for the cards sold, failing to return the unsold cards to him, and failing to safeguard the cards. The defendants filed a special appearance, which the trial court granted and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Although the primary defendant had made payment to the plaintiff in Texas, an agreement to make payments in the forum state does not weigh heavily in the “calculus of [minimum] contacts.” Although there were multiple conflicts in the parties’ accounts of their dealings, the Court of Appeals deferred to the trial court’s resolution of the factual discrepancies, and the remaining, undisputed facts did not demonstrate purposeful availment of Texas as a forum for the transactions at issue.

Klug v. Wickert, No. 05-14-00080-CV

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Court Reverses Trial Court, Finding No Personal Jurisdiction Over Third-Party Defendant

In this case involving corporate infighting, the defendant filed a third-party claim against Troy Brown.  Mr. Brown filed a special appearance asserting that the court did not have personal jurisdiction, which the trial court denied.  Mr. Brown appealed.

The Court of Appeals reversed, determining that Brown did not have minimum contacts with Texas such that he was subject to personal jurisdiction here.  The Court specifically found that several emails Brown sent to people in Texas did not “constitute a contact demonstrating purposeful availment.”

Brown v. Pennington

Maybe Next Time Try Paris, Texas?

Connie Sigel used a website to book an apartment in Paris (the one in France) for a seven-night vacation. During that stay, an intruder with keys to both the apartment and its safe stole most of Sigel’s possessions. Sigel sued the booking agency on multiple contract and tort claims. The trial court denied My Vacation Europe’s special appearance, but the Dallas Court of Appeals reversed and rendered. The Court held that Sigel’s act of accessing MVE’s website and renting an apartment while she was located in Dallas did not constitute a purposeful availment of Texas by MVE, and there was no evidence that MVE specifically targeted Texas residents for its services. The Court of Appeals also held that there could be no specific jurisdiction in Texas because the claims all arose from a burglary that occurred in France, meaning that the relationship between Texas and the operative facts of the litigation was too tenuous to support jurisdiction.

My Vacation Europe, Inc. v. Sigel, No. 05-14-00435-CV

Update: Threepeat. The dream is alive.

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Veils Don’t Get Pierced If You Don’t Seek to Pierce Them

Cornerstone Healthcare owns and operates a group of hospitals located in several states. It filed suit against Nautic Management VI, the general partner or manager of several private equity funds. NMVI filed a special appearance to challenge personal jurisdiction, but the trial court overruled it. On interlocutory appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed and rendered judgment dismissing NMVI from the case. Cornerstone argued that NMVI should be subject to specific personal jurisdiction in Texas because it controlled the funds whose representatives had traveled to Texas and conducted the business that got them all sued. The Court of Appeals disagreed, holding Cornerstone to its word that it was not attempting to pierce the corporate veil and therefore refusing to attribute the contacts of the funds to NMVI.

Nautic Mgmt. VI, LP v. Cornerstone Healthcare Group Holding, Inc., No. 05-13-00859-CV

Insufficient Minimum Contacts

Trinity Structural Towers, Inc. sued two related companies: 1) Suzlon Wind Energy Corporation (Suzlon Wind), a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in Texas, and 2) Suzlon Energy Company (Suzlon India), Suzlon Wind’s India-based parent company.  Trinity sued both defendants for breach of contract and several related claims.  Suzlon India filed a special appearance, arguing that it was not subject to personal jurisdiction in Texas, which the trial court denied.

On interlocutory appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and dismissed Suzlon India from the case for lack of personal jurisdiction.  Even though one of Suzlon India’s employees signed the contract at issue, the evidence was clear that the contract was between Trinity and Suzlon Wind, not Suzlon India.  The Court also rejected Trinity’s argument that Suzlon India was acting as Suzlon Wind’s agent, noting that Trinity did not meet its burden under Texas law to prove an agency relationship.

Suzlon Energy Ltd. v. Trinity Structural Towers Inc.

Effective Use of Subsidiaries

Cornerstone Healthcare Group Holding, Inc., a provider of post acute care hospital services, was pursuing acquisition opportunities of rehabilitation facilities in Texas.  In the midst of these efforts, several of its executives left the company.  Around the same time, New Reliant, a Delaware limited liability company, acquired a rehabilitation hospital in Texas called “Old Reliant.”  Cornerstone filed suit against New Reliant and a few other entities that had indirect ownership stakes in New Reliant via a chain of subsidiaries, alleging that several of Cornerstone’s recently-departed executives had usurped a corporate opportunity from Cornerstone.

The entities with ownership stakes in New Reliant filed special appearances, asserting that the court lacked personal jurisdiction over them.  Cornerstone argued that the entities were subject to jurisdiction in Texas based on their indirect ownership interest in New Reliant–a company doing business in Texas–and the fact that they held 100% of the stock of every entity involved in the purchase of the hospitals.  The entities argued that they were separate companies (based in Delaware) and that their only contact with Texas was their passive, indirect ownership interests in New Reliant. The trial court granted the entities’ special appearances, and Cornerstone appealed. The Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting Cornerstone’s argument that the subsidiaries in between the entity defendants and New Reliant should be ignored.  The Court further explained that nothing in the record suggested “that the degree of control exercised by appellees is greater than that normally associated with with common ownership and directorship.”

Cornerstone Healthcare Group Holding, Inc. v. Reliant Splitter, L.P. et al., No. 05-11-01730-CV

Class Action Contacts Insufficient to Trigger Personal Jurisdiction

In an interesting case on the scope of “minimum contacts,” the Court of Appeals held that serving as the representative plaintiff in a nationwide class action (with members from Texas) against a Texas company was not sufficient to create minimum contacts for purposes of personal jurisdiction.

The case arose out of a nationwide class action that the Appellees, as class representatives, filed in Illinois against King Supply Company, LLC alleging violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).  King settled the class action for $20 million, but as part of the settlement the Appellees covenanted that, except for $200,000 paid by King, their only source of payment would be King’s insurance policies.  King’s Texas-based insurance companies (Appellants) then filed a declaratory action in Dallas against Appellees seeking a declaration that they had no duty to defend or indemnify King.

Appellees filed a special appearance contesting personal jurisdiction, which the trial court granted.  Appellants appealed, arguing that by representing a nationwide class (12% of which were Texas residents) against a Texas company and seeking to recover funds from Texas insurance policies, Appellees’ contacts with Texas were sufficient to warrant personal jurisdiction over them.  The Court of Appeals disagreed, concluding that the evidence failed to show that Appellees “purposefully availed themselves of the privilege of conducting activities in Texas, thus invoking the benefits and protections of Texas law.”

Nat’l Fire Ins. Co. v. CE Design, Ltd., No. 05-13-00720-CV