Beyond Bristol-Myers : Personal Jurisdiction Over Class Actions
Adam N. Steinman
The Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court threatens a sea change in the relationship between personal jurisdiction and aggregate litigation. The most crucial concern has been what the decision means for class actions. Must a court subject the claims of every unnamed class member to separate jurisdictional scrutiny? If so, it could be impossible for a plaintiff who sues in her home state to represent class members outside that state; instead, the Constitution
would permit multistate or nationwide class actions only in states where the defendant is subject to general jurisdiction. For claims against a foreign defendant, no such state may exist.
This issue potentially implicates a range of difficult and unsettled doctrinal, practical, conceptual, and theoretical questions—about both personal jurisdiction and class actions. This Article, however, proposes a clean solution that coheres with existing case law while retaining the vitality of class actions to provide meaningful remedies in cases where systemic wrongs have nationwide consequences. On this approach, specific jurisdiction would be proper in any case where (a) there is specific jurisdiction over the named plaintiff’s claim against the defendant; and (b) a class action led by that plaintiff would satisfy the certification requirements of Rule 23. This solution finds support not only in longstanding practice prior to Bristol-Myers, but in the more fundamental principles and policies underlying specific jurisdiction. The impact of these underlying values has been further bolstered by the Supreme Court’s most recent decision on personal jurisdiction—Ford Motor Co. v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court. The upshot is that personal jurisdiction can exist over a class action even if the forum state would not have personal jurisdiction over a hypothetical separate action by an out-of-state individual who is an unnamed member of the class.
Moreover, this Article’s proposal makes it unnecessary for courts to confront thornier questions that would otherwise arise. Those questions include: the proper timing and procedural mechanism for objecting to personal jurisdiction with respect to the claims of unnamed class members; whether the jurisdictional constraints apply differently in federal courts and state courts; whether they apply differently to claims based on substantive federal law as opposed to state-law claims; the precise scope and justification for pendent personal jurisdiction; and the extent to which post-service events in federal court (such as class certification) are subject to the more expansive Fifth Amendment test for federal court personal jurisdiction. Under this Article’s solution, courts have a straightforward way to examine personal jurisdiction over class actions that does not hinge on or implicate these other issues.