Articles Posted in Pretrial Practice and Civil Procedure

Due Process is satisfied when a non-resident has sufficient minimum contacts with a state such that exercise of jurisdiction over him does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice. The minimum contacts analysis focuses on the relationship between the defendant, the forum and the litigation, and the defendant’s conduct must create a substantial connection with the forum state. The relationship must arise out of contacts that defendant himself creates with the forum state, and the contact must be with the forum state itself rather than merely with persons who reside there. The United States Supreme Court recently addressed these concepts in Walden v. Fiore.

Anthony Walden was working as a DEA agent at the Atlanta airport when, after using a drug-sniffing dog to perform a sniff test, he seized almost $97,000 in cash that Nevada residents Gina Fiore and Keith Gipson claimed to have won gambling in San Juan. Walden later helped draft an affidavit to establish probable cause. Fiore and Gipson sued Walden in Nevada alleging violation of their Fourth Amendment rights. Specifically, they asserted that Walden violated their rights by (1) seizing the cash without probable cause; (2) keeping the money after concluding it did not come from drug-related activity; (3) drafting and forwarding a probable cause affidavit to support a forfeiture action while knowing the affidavit contained false statements; (4) willfully seeking forfeiture while withholding exculpatory information; and (5) withholding that exculpatory information from the United States Attorney’s Office.
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Last September, I noted the case of Dunlap v. Cottman Transmissions Systems, LLC, in which the Fourth Circuit certified two questions to the Virginia Supreme Court seeking clarification with respect to Virginia’s business conspiracy statute and the applicable statute of limitations for tortious interference claims. The Virginia Supreme Court has now answered those questions, holding that causes of action for tortious interference with contract and tortious interference business expectancy qualify as the requisite “unlawful act” to proceed on a business conspiracy claim under Va. Code §§ 18.2-499 and -500 because both claims are predicated on an independent common law duty arising outside of contract. The court also held that claims for tortious interference are governed by § 8.01-243(B)’s five-year statute of limitations because such claims involve injury to property rights.

James Dunlap sued Cottman Transmission Systems, LLC, and Todd Leff for tortious interference with contract, tortious interference with business expectancy, and business conspiracy in violation of Virginia Code § 18.2-499 and § 18.2-500. The claims arose from Dunlap’s franchise agreements with AAMCO Transmissions, Inc. When a new owner of AAMCO (who already owned a controlling interest in Cottman) sought to convert Cottman Franchises into AAMCO franchises, Dunlap’s franchises were closed, and Dunlap claimed that the closings were due to a conspiracy between Cottman and others.
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Small businesses often find themselves the target of defamatory online reviews left by anonymous reviewers. In most cases, a subpoena can be issued to the website owner or Internet Service Provider to reveal the poster’s identity (or at least the I.P. address from which the post was written). See, for example, Yelp v. Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, in which the Virginia Court of Appeals held that Yelp could be compelled to comply with such a subpoena. Any such subpoena, however, cannot subject the recipient to undue burden. As illustrated by the recent Maryland case of In re: Subpoena of Daniel Drasin, an overreaching subpoena that places an undue burden on the recipient will be quashed.

Advanced Career Technologies, Inc. (“ACT”) sued John Does 1-10 in a Colorado federal court based on allegedly defamatory comments posted anonymously on the “Random Convergence” blog. In an attempt to discover the identity of the John Does, ACT served a third party subpoena on the blog’s administrator, Daniel Drasin, commanding him to produce any hard drives, servers and any other devices he used to administer the blog, and data stored online via website or application. Drasin moved to quash the subpoena pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 45(c)(3) asserting that it was unreasonable, imposed an undue burden and was not likely to lead to relevant evidence.
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Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) requires a complaint to contain a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief so as to give the defendant fair notice of the claim and the ground upon which it rests. The Supreme Court has interpreted this rule to require factual allegations sufficient to demonstrate that a claim is plausible on its face. Rule 9(c), on the other hand, allows plaintiffs to plead contractual conditions precedent “generally.” In Chesapeake Square Hotel v. Logan’s Roadhouse, Inc., the court was faced with the question of whether Rule 9(c) permits a lesser pleading standard than Rule 8, permitting plaintiffs in such cases to avoid the plausibility requirement. While the court did not answer the question directly since it found the plaintiff had presented a plausible claim anyway, the court’s discussion suggests that Rule 8’s plausibility requirement cannot be avoided by pointing to a provision in the Rules permitting a “general” pleading.

Chesapeake Square involved a contract for the sale of commercial real estate to Logan’s Roadhouse. The contract imposed conditions on both parties to be performed prior to closing. Defendant allegedly terminated the contract claiming that plaintiff failed to satisfy contractual preconditions. Plaintiff alleged breach of contract and sought specific performance. Defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that the complaint failed to adequately allege that plaintiff satisfied contractual conditions precedent that would entitle it to specific performance of the contract.

The court noted that when the Rule 9(c) general pleading requirement for conditions precedent is read without restriction, it allows parties to allege generally that all conditions precedent have occurred. In this case, the plaintiff alleged generally that it satisfied all of the preconditions to defendant’s obligations under the contract and therefore met the Rule 9(c) pleading requirement when read without restriction.

Federal courts have jurisdiction over civil actions that arise under the Constitution, laws or treaties of the United States (“federal question” jurisdiction) and in civil actions where the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000 and the matter is between citizens of different states (“diversity” jurisdiction). Parties must be completely diverse for diversity jurisdiction to apply, meaning that no party may share common citizenship with any party on the opposite side. A defendant may “remove” a case from state to federal court if the federal court has either federal question or diversity jurisdiction. The party seeking removal must establish that jurisdiction is proper, and if federal jurisdiction is doubtful, removal is not appropriate. In Terry Phillips Sales, Inc. v. Suntrust Bank, on a motion to remand due to failure of service on nondiverse defendants, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia retained jurisdiction of the case and ordered plaintiffs to properly serve the nondiverse defendants.

The plaintiffs in Sales were Virginia residents and employees of Suntrust Bank. They filed a complaint in a Richmond circuit court alleging multiple tort claims arising from an Employee Stock Ownership Plan. The complaint named Suntrust and three of its employees who plaintiffs alleged were Virginia citizens. Defendants contended that Suntrust is a citizen of Georgia with its principal place of business in Atlanta and that plaintiffs fraudulently joined the individual Virginia defendants to destroy diversity. Defendants removed the case based on diversity jurisdiction, and plaintiffs moved to remand the case back to state court.

Plaintiffs apparently had not properly served the nondiverse individual defendants but argued that their failure to do so was not evidence of fraudulent joinder as that those defendants were aware that plaintiffs intended to pursue their claims. Plaintiffs submitted an exhibit indicating that two of the defendants received at least some indication that they were being sued in the Richmond circuit court, but they did not provide any evidence that the third individual defendant had any notice.

A court will not substitute a judicial resolution for a contractually agreed-upon remedy when two sophisticated parties negotiate a contract at arm’s length. In Dominion Transmission, Inc. v. Precision Pipeline, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia dismissed a complaint where the two corporations had agreed to submit any disputes to mediation before commencing litigation and failed to do that. The basis for the dismissal, however, relied on the court’s inherent authority to control its docket, not on any lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

Utility company Dominion Transmission contracted with Precision Pipeline to construct a portion of the Appalachian Gateway pipelines. The parties’ contract provided that the parties would abide by a multi-tiered, progressive alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”) process before commencing litigation. In the event of a dispute, (1) the aggrieved party was to notify the other party of the dispute; if the parties could not resolve the dispute, they were required to (2) meet and discuss the issue among the project managers; then (3) proceed to a meeting of senior officers; and finally (4) proceed to mediation governed by the American Arbitration Association standards.

After Precision completed the pipelines, the parties met to close out the contract but could not reach agreement. Precision presented change order requests and filed mechanics’ liens and foreclosure actions. The parties communicated for several months, Dominion invoked its audit rights, and the parties disagreed over the amount, format and content of Precision’s required production of information. Both parties referred to the ADR provision of the contract in their communications, and counsel for the parties met at least once, but neither party initiated a meeting of senior executives or submitted the dispute to formal mediation as steps (3) and (4) of the contractual ADR provision required. Instead, Dominion filed suit in the United Pipeline.jpgStates Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, and Precision moved to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, arguing that the court lacked power to hear the case because a contractual condition precedent (submission to mediation) was not met.

Res judicata” is Latin for “the thing has been judged.” It basically means that once you sue someone and obtain a result–win or lose–the matter is over and you can’t sue the same person again for the same harm. It’s like the civil equivalent of double jeopardy. The doctrine is designed to conserve judicial resources, deter multiple lawsuits, and promote reliance on judicial decisions. A party claiming that a suit is barred by res judicata must establish: (1) a previous final judgment on the merits; (2) an identity of the cause of action in both suits; and (3) an identity of parties or their privies in the two suits.

A recent example is provided by Nathan v. Takeda, in which the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of a defamation claim based on res judicata grounds.

In an earlier case, Noah Nathan sued his employer, Takeda Pharmaceuticals America, for discrimination and retaliation under Title VII. After proceeding to judgment in that case, he filed a second suit, this time including several Takeda employees as defendants and changing his legal theory to defamation, conspiracy, and negligent supervision and retention. Nathan admitted the existence of a prior final judgment on the merits, but argued that his second case should have been allowed to proceed because the causes of action were different and different parties were involved.

Virginia Code § 19.2-266 governs media coverage of judicial proceedings and provides that a court “may solely in its discretion” permit photographs and broadcasting. Elsewhere, the statute specifies that “for good cause shown,” the presiding judge may prohibit or restrict coverage. Yesterday, the Supreme Court of Virginia clarified the seemingly ambiguous language of this statute in Virginia Broadcasting Co. v. Commonwealth.

The trial of George Huguely V for the murder of his on-again off-again girlfriend Yeardly Love was sensational news. Huguely and Love were young, attractive student athletes at the University of Virginia, with privileged pasts and bright futures engaged in a volatile relationship. The case was covered extensively in the media, but the court did not allow cameras in the courtroom during the trial. The court also refused to allow Virginia Broadcasting Company (“VBC”) to have a camera in the courtroom during Huguely’s sentencing hearing, and VBC appealed the decision.

The trial court, the Circuit Court of the City of Charlottesville, held a hearing on VBC’s request to record the sentencing proceedings. VBC argued that concerns about the impact of cameras on jurors and witnesses were not implicated in a sentencing hearing and that neither the Commonwealth nor Huguely had offered evidence of prejudice or established good cause for keeping a camera out of the hearing. Both the Commonwealth and Huguely opposed VBC’s request, arguing that cameras would have a detrimental impact on witnesses testifying at the hearing. Huguely asserted that VBC had not articulated any change in circumstances that would warrant the trial court’s reconsideration of its previous ruling to keep cameras out of the courtroom. Concerned about the effects of cameras on the witnesses and the effect of coverage on witnesses and jurors in a pending civil case that Love’s family had filed against Huguely, the trial court denied VBC’s request.

A federal court must determine that it has subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction and that venue is proper before it can adjudicate a matter. If it lacks any one of the three, the court will not proceed, and it need not examine whether the other two requirements are met. In diversity actions, subject matter jurisdiction is appropriate where the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000 and the dispute is between citizens of different states. In Liberty Mutual v. KB Home, the Newport News Division of the Eastern District of Virginia found that a plaintiff need not show with legal certainty that the amount-in-controversy requirement is met, but must allege the citizenship of all individual members of a defendant limited liability company to establish the citizenship of the LLC.

Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Company filed a complaint against KB Home, KB Home Raleigh-Durham, Inc. and Stock Building Supply, LLC–a subcontractor for KB Home Raleigh-Durham–seeking a declaratory judgment that it had discharged its duties as defendants’ insurer in a North Carolina state court action. The KB Home defendants moved to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, personal jurisdiction and improper venue.

To determine whether the amount in controversy requirement for subject matter jurisdiction is met, courts rely on the sum claimed by the plaintiff in good faith. A defendant contesting the amount in controversy must show that it is legally impossible for the plaintiff to recover the amount sought. Liberty Mutual’s complaint alleged in a simple and conclusory fashion that the amount in controversy exceeded the sum or value of $75,000. The defendants pointed out that the complaint also alleged that llcmembers.jpgthe insurance policy between the parties was exhausted such that the sum at stake could not exceed $75,000. Liberty Mutual responded that legal defense costs totaling $82,314.74 were at issue as evidenced by a legal billing invoice.

Although a plaintiff asserting a fraud claim in federal court may allege malice, intent, knowledge, and other conditions of a person’s mind in general terms, he must plead the circumstances constituting the fraud with particularity, identifying the time, place, content, and maker of each alleged fraudulent circumstance. Failure to plead fraud with sufficient particularity will result in dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), as demonstrated by the recent failed case against Capella University.

Melvin Murphy had a Bachelor of Arts degree and was pursuing an M.B.A. when he received online advertisements for Capella University’s doctoral programs in business management. Capella’s “enrollment counselors” responded aggressively to Murphy’s initial inquiries with calls, emails and marketing materials. Murphy contends that Capella’s promotional materials contained misstatements and misrepresentations upon which he relied when he enrolled in the school’s Ph.D. program in Organization and Management with a specialization in Leadership. For example, one brochure featured testimonials from supposed Capella doctoral students accompanied by photographs and quotes. Murphy asserts that at least one person pictured and quoted was not a graduate of Capella, was not a current student in the Ph.D. program and did not give permission for Capella to use his image. According to Murphy, the promotional materials were false and misleading as Capella did not award doctoral degrees in the field of Organization and Management and had no plans to do so. Capella agents allegedly reemphasized these misrepresentations when speaking with Murphy.

Murphy complains that Capella also failed to tell him that a doctoral candidate in any subject must pass Comprehensive Exams in order to be eligible for a Ph.D. and that most candidates fail these exams. According to Murphy, only 10% of Capella’s degree candidates obtained their desired degree. He asserts that these material omissions happened despite frequent contact with “representatives of Capella, including the Capella ‘enrollment counselors.'”

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