By Lawrence Friedman
The U.S. Supreme Court and Supreme Judicial Court have recently re-considered aspects of personal jurisdiction’s due process component. In Ford Motor v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court, 141 S. Ct. 1017 (2021), the Supreme Court sought to clarify the relatedness prong of the analysis. As first-year law students learn, for a court to exercise personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant, a plaintiff’s claims must either arise from or relate to the defendant’s in-state activities. Ford Motor found relatedness satisfied in the particular circumstances of the case, but the majority notably declined to explore the broader implications of this conclusion. Enter the Supreme Judicial Court: In its decision in Doucet v. FCA US LLC, 492 Mass. 204 (2023), the SJC explained how the Ford Motor conception of relatedness ought to be understood and applied.
The plaintiff in Doucet had been injured in an automobile accident in New Hampshire in 2015 and brought suit there against the car’s manufacturer, FCA US. See id. at 397-98. After a New Hampshire court found personal jurisdiction over FCA US lacking, the plaintiff filed suit in Massachusetts. Id. at 398. The Superior Court concluded that the Commonwealth could not exercise personal jurisdiction over FCA US, notwithstanding that the car in question had originally been sold to a New Hampshire resident by a Massachusetts dealership. Id.
Under the familiar rules, jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant depends upon the satisfaction of both a state’s long-arm statute and the requisites of due process. On appeal in Doucet, the SJC ruled the “but for” causation required by the Commonwealth’s long-arm statute satisfied and then turned to the due process analysis. Id. at 400-01. Reviewing the test derived from the seminal case of International Shoe v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310 (1945), the court explained that due process allows the exercise of personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant where that defendant purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting activities in the state, and the plaintiff’s claims either arose out of or related to the defendant’s forum-based activities. Id. at 401.
The record in Doucet showed that FCA US had engaged in ongoing automobile distribution, maintenance, and marketing activities in Massachusetts, and the SJC had little trouble concluding that purposeful availment was satisfied. Id. Addressing the relatedness prong of the analysis, the court observed that Massachusetts could exercise personal jurisdiction over FCA US only if the plaintiff’s claims related to activities in which FCA US had engaged in the Commonwealth. Id. at 403. Relying upon precedent from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, the SJC described the relatedness prong of due process as requiring a “demonstrable nexus” between the claim and “the defendant’s forum contacts.” Id., quoting Knox v. MetalForming, Inc., 914 F.3d 685, 691 (1st Cir. 2019). Here, the court concluded, “not only did FCA US engage in extensive business dealings in the forum,” but there existed “a causal connection between its business dealings and the injury, albeit an indirect one, as the automobile was first sold in Massachusetts and eventually purchased by Doucet, a resident of a neighboring State.” Id. at 403-04.
FCA US urged the SJC to read the Supreme Court’s decision in Ford Motor to cabin and not expand the reach of relatedness when a cause of action did not arise directly from a defendant’s forum-based activities. Doucet, 492 Mass. at 405. In Ford Motor, the plaintiffs brought products liability suits against the defendant in states where car accidents had occurred and the respective victims resided. Ford Motor argued that the state courts lacked jurisdiction over it “because the particular car involved in the crash was not first sold in the forum State, nor was it designed or manufactured there.” Ford Motor, 141 S.Ct at 1022. Rejecting this argument, the Supreme Court concluded that both Ford Motor’s extensive business dealings in each state concerning the vehicles in question and the occurrence of the alleged injury in each together satisfied the requirement that the plaintiff’s claims related to the defendant’s activities in the forum. Id. at 1026. FCA US argued that the Ford Motor court did not intend a similar conclusion when, rather than the injury occurring there, the forum state was simply the site of the first sale of the automobile at issue. See Doucet, 492 Mass. at 405. After noting that the thrust of Justice Elena Kagan’s majority opinion in Ford Motor was to expand the scope of relatedness when the cause of action did not arise from the defendant’s forum-based activities, the SJC reasoned that, regardless of whether the injury occurred in the forum or that was the state in which the first sale occurred, due process is satisfied by the existence of both the defendant’s extensive business dealings in Massachusetts and “business dealings related to the automobile that is the subject of the litigation.” Id. On the facts in Doucet, the SJC found a “strong relationship between the defendant, the forum, and the litigation.” Id., quoting Ford Motor, 141 S.Ct at 1028.
The value of the SJC’s decision in Doucet lies in the court’s clear answer to a question Ford Motor implicitly posed: whether, assuming extensive activities in the forum state, relatedness will only be satisfied if the plaintiff’s alleged injury occurred there. Answering in the negative, the SJC recognized Ford Motor’s emphasis on the quality of the activities that connect the defendant to both the plaintiff’s claim and the forum. In addressing a question the Supreme Court did not expressly ask or answer, Doucet also furthers the development of the law of personal jurisdiction. Given that the modern Supreme Court issues only fifty-some odd decisions per term these days, it is far from clear that the justices soon will be revisiting the intricacies of the relatedness prong of the due process analysis. Additional guidance as to the reach and scope of the court’s doctrinal constructs should be welcomed no matter the court whence it comes.
Lawrence Friedman teaches constitutional law and civil procedure at New England Law | Boston; prior to teaching, he was a commercial litigator at Choate, Hall & Stewart, in Boston.