I am a bit surprised that the Supreme Court’s recent decisions in the stream of commerce cases have not been receiving more attention in the blog-o-sphere. The issues are important, and the Court’s resolution of the cases contains some interesting developments in the law as well as some important signals of where future fights may lay [Disclosure - I filed briefs on behalf of an amicus in both cases. The views expressed here are my own and do not reflect those of my client.]
For readers familiar with the cases, you can skip this paragraph which simply provides a bit of background. The Court decided two cases – Goodyear and Nicastro. Goodyear presented the question whether a state court could exercise general jurisdiction over foreign companies based on the flow of those companies’ goods (through intermediaries) into the state (the underlying facts involved forum state residents who were killed in a bus accident in France). Nicastro presented the more standard question, created by the Supreme Court’s fractured opinion in Asahi – namely the conduct necessary to support specific jurisdiction based on the stream of commerce theory (the underlying facts involved a forum resident, injured in the forum state, by a machine manufactured in England and sold into the forum state by an independent US disributor with nationwide distribution rights).
In Goodyear, it was clear from the get-go that the Supreme Court was going to reverse and hold that the stream of commerce theory did not support general jurisdiction. In doing so, the Court did a couple of interesting things. First, and perhaps most importantly, the Court really narrowed the “continuous and systematic” contacts theory of general jurisdiction; the Court basically indicated that the theory was only available in an extraordinary case (like Perkins) where a foreign corporation relocated all of its operations to the US out of necessity. Second, the Court explicitly linked purchases from the forum state (which had been at issue in Helicopteros) with sales to the forum state (at issue in Goodyear). Prior decisions had suggested that, for export promotion reasons, purchaes from the forum state should be less likely to establish minimum contacts – Goodyear suggested there was no reason to treat the other differently. Third, though the statement is technically dicta, the Court seemed to imply that a corporation could be subject to general jurisdiction not only in its state of incorporation but also in the state where it maintained its principal place of business (where that is a different state). This strikes me as a rather radical statement- albeit dicta – especially becaues the Court offered no guidance on how to determine that place (particularly strange since, just last term, it had resolved a longstanding circuit split on that question in the context of determining the PPOB for diversity purposes).
In Nicastro, oral argument suggested that the vote would likely be 6-3, and that’s what happened albeit with another badly divided opinion (de ja vu from Asahi). A couple of issues were at play in the Court’s decision. One issue was the proper test. Three justices (RBG, SS, and EK) embraced the Brennan view from Asahi. The AMK plurality is a bit tougher to read but appears to embrace a modified version of the SOC view from Asahi. It seems to say that stream of commerce theory still requires purposeful availment (the plurality uses the term “targeting”) of the forum state, but the plurality carefully avoids repearing the “additional conduct” factors that SOC identified in Asahi. The Breyer/Alito concurrence is the most ambiguous. It appears to reject the New Jersey Supreme Court’s rule (which drew on the Brennan Asahi opinion) but also cites the Brennan Asahi opinion (in my view, Breyer actually reinterprets that opinion without saying he’s doing so). A second issue is the sovereign/forum analysis. The AMK plurality pretty clearly wants to differentiate state sovereigns from national sovereigns and basically say that national sovereigns can consider nationwide contacts but state soveriegns can consider only contacts at the forum state itself (this has important implications for legislation pending before Congress). The RBG dissent seems more willing to let forum states consider nationwide contacts at least where the foreign mfr uses a nationwide distributor. Again, the Breyer/Alito concurrence is hardest to read on this point and probably cannot be understood to offer up a view. A third issue is the methodology – the AMK plurality seems to be attempting to shift the Court away from fairness-based notions of constitutional limits on personal jurisdiction (note the repeated references to Scalia’s Burnham opinion which sought to do the same). RBG doesn’t like that at all. And again, Breyer and Alito are mum (though I suspect this may be a point on which these two might part ways). Finally and perhaps most significantly, it’s worth noting that none of the justices cited the Asahi/Woodson “reasonableness” test, leaving one to wonder at least whether that prong of the test continues to hold appeal for a majority of the Court.
What does the future hold? A couple of things. As far as Goodyear, expect to see a lot more litigation on the issue of jurisdictional imputation of contacts – that was brimming beneath the surface in Goodyear, and RBG rightly concluded that the respondents had waived the issue. But the law is all over the place, and some circuits (like CA9) are doing some nutty thing. Additionally, expect to see a battle for the hearts and minds of Justice Alito and the Solicitor General. Indeed, Alito’s vote in Nicastro is the most curious one in these cases, and I cannot help but think that Alito, a former ASG, was a bit tweaked that the SG didn’t file in that case (even though it filed in Goodyear), and the Breyer opinion basically says it’s awaiting the SG’s view. Third, look for some internet cases. Civ pro gurus know this has been a thorny area which Asahi did not contemplate and which dcts like the Zippo decision have struggled to address. Breyer in particular appears keenly aware of the interplay between stream of commerce theory and internet contacts.
Peter Bowman Rutledge is Professor of Law at the University of Georgia School of Law