Minnesota Federal court declines to exercise personal jurisdiction over Winnipeg website operator

In an action for defamation, copyright infringement and business interference, the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota declined to exercise personal jurisdiction over a website operator based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, holding that Minnesota’s long arm statute precluded such exercise as to the defamation claim, and that the Zippo and “effects” tests did not warrant exercise of personal jurisdiction as to the copyright and business interference claims.

The plaintiffs in this case were a religious organization and the owner of the copyright in the organization’s religious writings. Plaintiffs filed suit in Minnesota against a website operator located in Winnipeg, Canada, claiming that they were defamed through a website maintained by defendant, and that the defendant infringed the plaintiffs’ copyright and interfered with their business relations. The defendant moved to dismiss, claiming that he did not have sufficient contacts with Minnesota for the court’s exercise of jurisdiction over him. The court agreed, and dismissed the action.

The court concisely reviewed the standards it applies when determining whether to exercise personal jurisdiction over an out of state defendant. It covered the threshold questions of whether the facts presented satisfy the forum’s long arm statute and whether the court’s exercise of jurisdiction would be fair in accordance with due process.

There were two main components of the court’s analysis. It first analyzed the question of jurisdiction in relation to the defamation claim and then went on to answer the question of whether the defendant would be subject to personal jurisdiction in the copyright infringement and business interference claims.

In general, Minnesota’s long arm statute provides that a Minnesota court can exercise personal jurisdiction over an out of state defendant if that defendant is alleged to have committed and act outside of Minnesota which causes injury in Minnesota. There is a specific exception, however, when the cause of action lies in defamation. In this case, even though the website was created in Minnesota, the defendant was never in Minnesota for purposes of maintaining the website, and everything he did to maintain the site he did from his home in Canada. The court held that because the defendant’s “acts” in maintaining the site were committed in Winnipeg, where his computer was located, the plaintiffs could not establish that the court should exercise personal jurisdiction as to the defamation claim.

The court then considered whether it could exercise personal jurisdiction over the defendant as to the copyright infringement and business interference claims. The court applied the well-known Zippo test first articulated in the case of Zippo Mfg. Co. v. Zippo Dot Com, Inc. 952 F.Supp. 1119 (W.D.Pa. 1997). This test focuses on the nature and quality of commercial activity that an entity conducts over the Internet. The greater the amount of interactivity of a website, the more likely a court will determine it can exercise personal jurisdiction over the entity owning the website. In this case, there was no commercial activity on the site, and the interactivity of the site consisted only of a users forum and a guestbook. The court found that this was not sufficient to warrant exercise of personal jurisdiction under the Zippo test.

The analysis did not stop there, however. The court went on to apply the “effects” test, articulated in the case of Calder v. Jones, 465 U.S. 783 (1984). This test essentially provides that a court’s exercise of personal jurisdiction over an out of state defendant is proper if the defendant’s intentionally tortuous activity is specifically directed to the forum state and the plaintiff feels the “brunt of the harm” within the forum state. In the present case, the court determined that the plaintiffs did not pass the effects test, because the website was directed at the Brethren organization, and not specifically at Minnesota or its residents.

Bible & Gospel Trust v. Wyman, — F.Supp.2d —, 2005 WL 273162 (D.Minn. January 31, 2005).