Free Speech

#MeToo/#TheyLied Among the Communists / "Anti-Fascists" / Left Anarchists: This Time About Personal Jurisdiction

“The allegedly defamatory statements Ms. Legarde made included not just online posts but defamatory statements in calls and emails to six people whom Ms. Legarde allegedly knew were Vermont residents and who were associated with Plaintiff through Vermont-based organizations.”

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From today's decision by Judge Christina Reiss (D. Vt.) in Helali v. Legarde, a cases I had noted when it was filed:

Allegations in the Complaint.

In early 2016, Plaintiff and Ms. Legarde were in a "romantic relationship" while living in the Boston area. Their relationship ended in May 2016. Ms. Legarde gave birth to their daughter, S.A.L., in 2017. Plaintiff was in Syria from January 2017 until September 2017, when he returned to the United States. He lived in Hanover, New Hampshire "for a few months" before moving to Vershire, Vermont, where he continues to reside.

When Ms. Legarde learned in December 2018 that Plaintiff had returned to the United States, "Ms. Legarde began engaging in threatening and abusive behavior toward Mr. Helali that escalated dramatically over time." This included threatening Mr. Helali; contacting his family; and contacting Dartmouth College, where he was a student, to accuse him of sexual assault in an attempt to have him expelled. Between April 22, 2019 and January 22, 2021, Plaintiff made three unsuccessful attempts to obtain a relief-from-abuse order from Vermont Superior Court. After his last attempt was denied on January 22, 2021, Ms. Legarde allegedly "embarked on a willful, malicious, relentless and vicious defamation campaign against him[.]"

Between February 6, 2021 and March 26, 2021, Ms. Legarde made six separate posts on Twitter accusing Mr. Helali of being a rapist who sexually assaulted her. From March 25, 2019 to February 16, 2021, Ms. Legarde made thirty-three statements in online posts on Facebook, Twitter, and other websites accusing Plaintiff of sexually assaulting her, abusing her and his ex-wife, abandoning his children, being dishonorably discharged from the military, committing war crimes, being anti-Semitic, and stealing money.

On or about April 17, 2019, Ms. Legarde called Ernie Kohlsaat, a Vermont resident and editor of The Valley News, a newspaper covering New Hampshire and Vermont for which Plaintiff had written articles. Ms. Legarde told Mr. Kohlsaat that Plaintiff had been dishonorably discharged from the military, sexually assaulted her, was anti-Semitic, abused her, and had committed theft.

On or about April 12, 2019, Ms. Legarde emailed Amanda Wedegis, a Vermont resident and editor of the Vermont Journal, for which Plaintiff had written articles. Ms. Legarde accused Plaintiff of sexual assault, anti-Semitism, abuse, and theft. In a February 4, 2020 blog post, Ms. Legarde wrote that her correspondence with Ms. Wedegis had convinced Ms. Wedegis to pull an article Plaintiff had written from its posting on the Vermont Journal website and prevent its publication in a print edition.

On February 20, 2020, Ms. Legarde emailed Martha Hennessy, a Vermont resident, accusing Plaintiff of sexual assault and being dishonorably discharged from the military. Also in February 2020, Ms. Legarde called Aaron Hoopes, a Vermont resident and President of the Board of Directors for Vershare, an organization in Vershire, Vermont, with which Plaintiff had worked. In the call, Ms. Legarde "tr[ied] to convince [Mr. Hoopes] to sever professional ties with [Plaintiff,]" repeated what Mr. Hoopes called "very slanderous accusations[,]" and directed Mr. Hoopes to what Mr. Hoopes described as an "anti-Chris Helali website."

In or around June 2020, Ms. Legarde contacted Vermont residents Josh Wronski and Vermont State Senator Anthony Pollina, members of the Vermont Progressive Party, and accused Plaintiff of sexual assault, anti-Semitism, abuse, and theft.

Plaintiff alleges Ms. Legarde's statements in online posts and to Vermont residents were false and defamatory. Plaintiff further alleges that "Ms. Legarde purposely directed the harmful effects of her activities at the State of Vermont in calculated attempts to cause harm to Mr. Helali in the State of Vermont" and "[a]t all relevant times, Ms. Legarde knew the emotional, reputational, employment and privacy-related tortious injuries she was intentionally causing to Mr. Helali would be felt by him in the State of Vermont." Ms. Legarde's defamatory statements allegedly "caused Mr. Helali to suffer ongoing impairment of reputation, diminished standing in the community, personal humiliation, injury and embarrassment, emotional distress and mental anguish, and professional and financial harm."

The main question at this point in the litigation is whether plaintiff has alleged sufficient contacts with Vermont to allow the case to proceed in Vermont federal court; and the court said yes:

"To determine whether a defendant has the necessary 'minimum contacts,' a distinction is made between 'specific' and 'general' personal jurisdiction." Specific jurisdiction "exists when a forum exercises personal jurisdiction over a defendant in a suit arising out of or related to the defendant's contacts with the forum[.]"In contrast, general jurisdiction "is based on the defendant's general business contacts with the forum and permits a court to exercise its power in a case where the subject matter of the suit is unrelated to those contacts." "A court deciding whether it has jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant under the Due Process Clause must evaluate the 'quality and nature[]' … of the defendant's contacts with the forum state under a totality of the circumstances test[.]"Plaintiff argues the court has only specific personal jurisdiction over Ms. Legarde.

"[A] State may authorize its courts to exercise personal jurisdiction over an out-of­ state defendant if the defendant has 'certain minimum contacts with [the State] such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend 'traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.'" "For the purpose of establishing specific personal jurisdiction, the necessary fair warning requirement is satisfied if the defendant has purposefully directed his [or her] activities at residents of the forum, and the litigation results from alleged injuries that arise out of or relate to those activities."

In order for the court to exercise specific jurisdiction, "the suit must arise out of or relate to the defendant's contacts with the forum." There must be '"some act by which the defendant purposefully avail[ed] itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum State, thus invoking the benefits and protections of its laws.'" The '"minimum contacts' analysis looks to the defendant's contacts with the forum State itself, not the defendant's contacts with persons who reside there." The "foreseeability of causing injury in another State" will not alone suffice, and "the plaintiff cannot be the only link between the defendant and the forum." …

In Calder v. Jones, the Supreme Court held that there was specific jurisdiction in California over non-resident defendants who published an allegedly libelous article about a California resident. As the Supreme Court observed:

The crux of Calder was that the reputation-based "effects" of the alleged libel connected the defendants to California, not just to the plaintiff. The strength of that connection was largely a function of the nature of the libel tort. However scandalous a newspaper article might be, it can lead to a loss of reputation only if communicated to (and read and understood by) third persons. Accordingly, the reputational injury caused by the defendants' story would not have occurred but for the fact that the defendants wrote an article for publication in California that was read by a large number of California citizens. Indeed, because publication to third persons is a necessary element of libel, the defendants' intentional tort actually occurred in California. In this way, the "effects" caused by the defendants' article—i.e., the injury to the plaintiffs reputation in the estimation of the California public—connected the defendants' conduct to California, not just to a plaintiff who lived there. That connection, combined with the various facts that gave the article a California focus, sufficed to authorize the California court's exercise of jurisdiction.

"Exercise of jurisdiction in such circumstances 'may be constitutionally permissible if the defendant expressly aimed its conduct at the forum.'"

Ms. Legarde argues that (1) "[m]ere posts on the internet cannot form the basis for personal jurisdiction in Vermont[,]" (2) "statements … made from outside of Vermont via email and telephone to residents in Vermont cannot form the sole basis for jurisdiction[,]" and (3) "Plaintiff fails to allege that Ms. Legarde's conduct was 'expressly aimed' at Vermont." Ms. Legarde further contends that her alleged conduct after December 2018, when she learned Mr. Legarde was residing in Vermont, "cannot be considered the focal point of the alleged tort or harm suffered."

This case falls squarely within the "effects test" theory of Calder. The allegedly defamatory statements Ms. Legarde made included not just online posts but defamatory statements in calls and emails to six people whom Ms. Legarde allegedly knew were Vermont residents and who were associated with Plaintiff through Vermont-based organizations. Plaintiff alleges these defamatory statements were intended to, and did, have an impact on him in Vermont. For example, Plaintiff alleges Ms. Legarde "tr[ied] to convince [Aaron Hoopes, with whom Plaintiff had worked in a Vermont grassroots organization,] to sever professional ties with Mr. Helali" and Ms. Legarde's email correspondence with the editor of the Vermont Journal, Amanda Wedegis, "convinced Ms. Wedegis to: (A) stop a piece written by Mr. Helali from appearing in the print edition of the Vermont Journal, and (B) pull the same piece from the publication's website." Ms. Legarde also allegedly contacted Mr. Wronski and Mr. Pollina, representatives of a Vermont political party, to accuse Plaintiff of sexual assault, anti-Semitism, abuse, and theft.

While simply posting on the internet may not be enough to show conduct was expressly aimed at Vermont, Plaintiff alleges Ms. Legarde targeted Vermont residents with her online posts and other communications which were intended to have harmful effects on Plaintiff in Vermont. Plaintiff alleges Ms. Legarde wrote about her correspondence with Ms. Wedegis and its harmful effects on Plaintiff in an online blog post that was itself allegedly defamatory. As the Complaint states, "Ms. Legarde purposely directed the harmful effects of her activities at the State of Vermont" and "knew the emotional, reputational, employment and privacy-related tortious injuries she was intentionally causing to Mr. Helali would be felt by him in the State of Vermont."

Ms. Legarde's alleged activities were not "random, fortuitous, or attenuated contacts[,]" or "the unilateral activity of a plaintiffl,]" but "intentional conduct by the defendant that creates the necessary contacts with the forum." By directly contacting and circulating her online postings and other communications to Vermont residents, the alleged tort of defamation took place in Vermont. Moreover, effects caused by the tort, "i.e., the injury to the plaintiffs reputation in the estimation of the [Vermont] public[,] connected [Ms. Legarde's] conduct to [Vermont], not just to a plaintiff who lived there." "In sum, [Vermont] is the focal point both of the [tortious acts] and of the harm suffered." See also Tamburo v. Dworkin (7th Cir. 2010) ("Tortious acts aimed at a target in the forum state and undertaken for the express purpose of causing injury there are sufficient to satisfy Calder's express-aiming requirement.")….

Construing the facts alleged in the Complaint in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, he has established that Ms. Legarde has sufficient "minimum contacts" with Vermont for specific jurisdiction….