Wong v. Partygaming Ltd., — F.3d —, 2009 WL 4893955 (6th Cir. December 21, 2009)
The Sixth Circuit’s recent opinion in the case of Wong v. Partygaming is interesting if you’re a civil procedure wonk and care about things like which law applies to determine the enforceability of forum selection clauses in website terms and conditions and what factors a court should consider when dismissing a case on the basis of forum non conveniens.
The most intriguing part of the case, however, comes from Judge Merritt’s concurrence, in which he addresses the significance of the fact that the terms of service for an online gambling website are probably illegal.
The majority opinion painstakingly analyzed whether the district court abused its discretion in dismissing, of its own will (or “sua sponte” as stodgy lawyers like to say), the plaintiffs’ suit against an online gambling website. The plaintiffs had alleged that the site fraudulently misrepresented that there was no collusion among other online gamblers, and that the site did not target people with gambling problems. The website terms of service contained a forum selection clause naming Gibraltar as the jurisdiction in which disputes were to be heard.
The appellate court affirmed the lower court’s decision that the case should be dismissed and that Gibraltar (which follows English law) would be a suitable and not-too-inconvenient forum. But the majority opinion said nothing about the legality of online gaming.
That’s where Judge Merritt picked up in the concurrence. He agreed that the matter should have been dismissed in favor of it being heard in Gibraltar — that’s why he concurred and did not dissent. His reasoning differed from that of the majority.
Judge Merritt observed that the plaintiffs’ logic was inconsistent. They had argued that Ohio law should apply to the terms of service. But under Ohio law (and federal statutes like RICO), the subject matter of the contract would probably have been illegal and therefore void. Not to mention the fact that the conduct could send the parties to jail.
The judge wrote that something analogous to the principle of lenity — and not necessarily a rigorous analysis of the forum selection clause and the doctrine of forum non conveniens — should underlie the dismissal of the lawsuit. Lenity requires that when the question of criminal liability is ambiguous, interpretation should be made in favor of the defendant (see McNally v. United States). Since online gambling presumably was not illegal under the law of Gibraltar, the more lenient stance would be to see the matter litigated there.