When Your Social Media Presence Can be Used Against You in a Foreign State as a Basis for Personal Jurisdiction

Merriam-Webster defines “social media” as “forms of electronic communication (such as websites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (such as videos).”  Individuals and businesses are increasingly turning to social networking sites — i.e., Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube (among others) — to interact with clients and customers.

Jurisdiction

As a result of the proliferation of people and companies making use of social media accounts, more and more courts throughout the United States are being asked to consider when a party’s social media presence can provide a sufficient basis for establishing personal jurisdiction over a party.  Federal courts sitting in New Jersey and elsewhere have recently considered this very issue.  Individuals and businesses using social media would be well-served to understand the holding of this case, which sets forth when a New Jersey Court will exercise jurisdiction over a party because of how it uses social media.

In Harris v. Sportbike Track Gear, No. 13-6527, 2015 WL 5648710 (D.N.J. Sept. 24, 2015), the court declined to exercise jurisdiction in New Jersey based upon the defendant’s mere maintenance of social media accounts such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.  The court held that although the defendant had social media accounts which were commercial and interactive, no evidence suggested that those accounts were specifically intended to target customers in New Jersey, and there was no evidence that the defendant conducted any business with residents of New Jersey.  Thus, the court concluded that even though the defendant’s website and social media platforms were accessible in New Jersey, the defendant could not have reasonably expected to be haled into a New Jersey court.

Federal courts in several other states – – California, Florida, Nebraska, South Carolina and Virginia – – have also considered whether a party’s mere presence on social media can serve as a basis for the court to exercise personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant.  Several of these courts have, like New Jersey, declined to exercise personal jurisdiction over a party based on its social media presence. For example, the court in McNeil v. Biaggi Productions, LLC, No. 15-751, 2017 WL 2625069 (E.D.  Va. June 16, 2017), declined to exercise personal jurisdiction over nearly all counts of a complaint based upon defendant’s posts on Twitter and Facebook because the online posts “were not expressly directed at Virginia, but to an undefined audience of Internet users around the world.”  A similar result for similar reasons was reached a month later in FireClean, LLC v. Tuohy, No. 16-294, 2016 WL 3952093 (E.D. Va. July 21, 2016).             Likewise, in Security Alarm Fin. Ent., L.P. v. Nebel, 200 F.Supp.3d 976, 985 (N.D. Cal. 2016), the court held that it lacked personal jurisdiction over the defendant, finding that her Facebook and Instagram pages were merely informative, personal and non-commercial in nature and were not “in any way directed or targeted at California or a California audience.”  Another court, in HVLP02, LLC v. Oxygen Frog LLC, 187 F.Supp.3d 1097 (D. Neb. 2016), also dismissed a complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction after concluding that maintenance of a nationally accessible website alone was not purposefully directed to Nebraska and that any website or social media activity by the defendant which was purposefully directed to Nebraska was not related to the plaintiff’s particular claims and, therefore, could not be a basis for personal jurisdiction.

However, other courts have found circumstances where a party’s social media activity was deemed sufficient for the purpose of establishing personal jurisdiction. In Ramirez v. Group Services, Inc., No. 16-1831, 2017 WL 2672555 (M.D. Fla. June 21, 2017), a copyright infringement case, the court held that defendant’s website and social media pages provide a basis for personal jurisdiction because they intentionally targeted Florida travelers. Similarly, the court in Emory Group, LLC v. South By Sea, LLC,  No. 15-1856, 2016 WL 775360 (D.S.C. Feb. 29, 2016), held that Facebook pages directed specifically to South Carolina with the intention of engaging in business or other interactions in the state were sufficient enough contacts for the court to exercise personal jurisdiction over the defendants.

Individuals and businesses should be very mindful of the language they use on their social media accounts (as well as on their websites) to avoid having their Internet presence inadvertently used against them as a basis for personal jurisdiction in a state in which they otherwise have no minimum contacts.

Rob Nussbaum has lectured numerous times on legal issues and social media and how social media and other electronic evidence may be admitted into evidence at trial. He concentrates his practice in general commercial litigation and appears regularly in New Jersey federal and state courts. For any questions relating to whether your website or social media presence can be used against you as a basis for personal jurisdiction, please contact Robert B. Nussbaum, Esq. at Saiber LLC.