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Pinkett v. Dr. Leonard's Healthcare Corp.

United States District Court, District of Columbia

May 6, 2019

RENE PINKETT, Plaintiff,
DR. LEONARD'S HEALTHCARE CORP., et al., Defendants.


          James E. Boasberg, United States District Judge

         After sustaining injuries from an allegedly defective B Yours Vibe 2 vibrator, Plaintiff Rene Pinkett filed suit against both the vibrator's seller and its manufacturer. In an earlier round of this litigation, the manufacturer - Defendant Vee International, Inc. - moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. Reluctant to end Vee's involvement with this case without granting Pinkett an opportunity to explore possible bases for jurisdiction, the Court permitted her discovery to investigate Defendant's contacts with the District of Columbia. That discovery has now taken place. As it turned up nothing that subjects Vee to personal jurisdiction here, the Court will grant the company's renewed Motion to Dismiss.

         I. Background

         The facts underlying this case bear little on the narrow issue at play. The Court will thus jump over most of the setup and focus on the case's procedural history. Pinkett lives in Washington, D.C. See ECF No. 1, Attach. 2 (Sup. Ct. Docs.), Exh. A (Complaint), ¶ 3. According to her Complaint, she purchased the Vibe 2 around May or June of 2015 from a mail-order catalogue published by Dr. Leonard's Healthcare Corporation. Id., ¶ 8. After an alleged product defect caused her injury, Pinkett filed suit against both the seller - Dr. Leonard's - as well as the vibrator's manufacturer, Vee International, which conducts business under the name Blush Novelties. Id., ¶¶ 12-18; see also ECF No. 17 (Vee Amended MTD) at 1 n.1. The two Defendants responded with separate motions to dismiss. Dr. Leonard's maintained that Plaintiffs Complaint failed to state a claim. See ECF No. 4 (Dr. Leonard's MTD). This Court granted in part and denied in part that motion, narrowing the counts that could continue. See Pinkett v. Dr. Leonard's Healthcare Corp., 2018 WL 4682022, at *1 (D.D.C. Sept. 28, 2018).

         Vee International took a different route. It contended that the Court lacked personal jurisdiction over it, as the Complaint fell short of establishing either specific or general jurisdiction. See Sup. Ct. Docs. at ECF pp. 68-70 (Vee First MTD), ¶¶ 3-5. In response, Pinkett argued that she did not have enough information to show that the Court could exercise general jurisdiction over Defendant. See Sup. Ct. Docs. at ECF pp. 96-104 (Pl. Opp. First MTD.) at 3. She maintained, however, that specific jurisdiction existed here. Plaintiff based this conclusion on her assertion that Vee “regularly conducts and solicits business in Washington, D.C., ” through mail-order catalogues, such as Dr. Leonard's, as well as through various online retailers, such as Amazon and eBay. See Compl., ¶¶ 6, 13; see also Pl. Opp. First MTD at 2, 6 & n.3.

         This Court concluded that Vee could not be subjected to general jurisdiction in the District of Columbia. See Pinkett v. Dr. Leonard's Healthcare Corp., 2018 WL 5464793, at *2-3 (D.D.C. Oct. 29, 2018). As to specific jurisdiction, although it found insufficient bases in the existing record, id. at *2, it nevertheless ordered jurisdictional discovery “because [Pinkett] identifie[d] certain facts that could, if more fully developed, support the exercise of personal jurisdiction.” Id The Court forewarned her that unilateral actions by distributors and passive websites would not be sufficient to establish this Court's jurisdiction over Vee International. Id at *5.

         Following the completion of such jurisdictional discovery - during which Plaintiff took the deposition of Vee International's Chief Operating Officer, Eric Lee - Defendant has now renewed its Motion to Dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. See Vee Amended MTD at 1. Plaintiff meanwhile holds fast to her contention that her suit against Vee is properly in this Court. In support, she points to two additional facts turned up during discovery. First, Vee International participates in occasional tradeshows, which draw participants from across the United States. See ECF No. 18 (Pl. Opp.) at 6. Second, a retailer in College Park, Maryland, carries Defendant's products and can be located through Vee International's website. Id. at 6-7. The Court's task is now to ascertain whether these two assertions tip the balance in Pinkett's favor as to specific jurisdiction. She concedes that there is no general jurisdiction here. Id at 7.

         II. Legal Standard

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(2), a defendant may move to dismiss a suit if the court lacks personal jurisdiction over it. The plaintiff bears the burden of establishing personal jurisdiction, see FC Inv. Grp. LC v. IFX Mkts., Ltd., 529 F.3d 1087, 1091 (D.C. Cir. 2008), and the requirements for personal jurisdiction “must be met as to each defendant.” Rush v. Savchuk, 444 U.S. 320, 332 (1980). In deciding whether the plaintiff has shown a factual basis for personal jurisdiction over a defendant, the court resolves factual discrepancies in favor of the plaintiff. See Crane v. N.Y. Zoological Soc'y, 894 F.2d 454, 456 (D.C. Cir. 1990). When personal jurisdiction is challenged, “the district judge has considerable procedural leeway in choosing a methodology for deciding the motion.” 5B Charles A. Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1351 (3d ed. 2004). The court may rest on the allegations in the pleadings, collect affidavits and other evidence, or even hold a hearing. Id.

         III. Analysis

         Per the Federal Rules, a district court may exercise specific jurisdiction over a defendant when a court of the state in which the federal court is located could exercise such jurisdiction. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(k)(1)(A). This analysis requires a “two-part inquiry.” GTE New Media Servs. Inc. v. BellSouth, Corp., 199 F.3d 1343, 1347 (D.C. Cir. 2000). A court must first examine whether the state's - here, the District's - long-arm statute reaches the defendant and then ask whether jurisdiction comports with the requirements of the Constitution's Due Process Clause. Id In this case, however, those two inquires merge. That is because, although the District's long-arm statute sets forth several possible routes for personal jurisdiction, Pinkett only invokes one: a claim arising from Defendant's “transacting any business in the District of Columbia.” D.C. Code § 13-423(a)(1); see also Pl. Opp. at 4. The D.C. Court of Appeals has interpreted this prong to be “coextensive with the due process clause” when the relevant contacts derive from some type of commercial or business-related activity, as is the case here. See Helmer v. Doletskaya, 393 F.3d 201, 205 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (quoting Mouzavires v. Baxter, 434 A.2d 988, 992 (D.C. 1981)). The only inquiry necessary, therefore, is the Constitutional one.

         Due process permits a court to exercise specific jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant where there are sufficient minimum contacts. See Int'l Shoe, Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 316 (1945). More specifically, such contacts must be extensive enough so that a defendant could “reasonably anticipate being haled into court.” World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286, 297 (1980). Minimum contacts may be established in some situations through “a defendant's participation in the ‘stream of commerce,' which ‘refers to the movement of goods from manufacturers through distributors to consumers.'” Williams v. Romarm, SA, 756 F.3d 777, 784 (D.C. Cir. 2014) (quoting J. McIntyre Mach., Ltd. v. Nicastro, 564 U.S. 873, 881 (2011) (plurality opinion)). That said, “a ‘single isolated sale' from a distributor to a customer in the forum state has never been sufficient to establish minimum contacts between the manufacturer and the forum.” Id. at 785 (quoting Nicastro, 564 U.S. at 888 (Breyer, J., concurring in the judgment)). Rather, jurisdiction over the out-of-state defendant with products in the stream of commerce is only proper “where the contacts proximately result from actions by the defendant himself that create a substantial connection with the forum State.” Burger King Corp. v. Rudzewicz, 471 U.S. 462, 475 (1985) (internal quotations and citation omitted). Such contacts must show that “the defendant purposefully availed himself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum State, thus invoking the benefits and protections of its laws.” Thompson Hine, LLP v. Taieb, 734 F.3d 1187, 1189 (D.C. Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks, citation, and alterations omitted). For these reasons, a plaintiff invoking a stream-of-commerce theory must, “at a minimum, ” be able to point to a “‘regular course of sales' in the forum state, or some additional efforts directed toward the forum state, such as ‘special state-related design, advertising, advice, [or] marketing.'” Williams, 756 F.3d at 785 (quoting Nicastro, 564 U.S. at 889 (Breyer, J., concurring in the judgment)). In an attempt to clear this hurdle, Plaintiff relies on two facts obtained during jurisdictional discovery.

         First, she learned from the deposition of Defendant's Chief Operating Officer, Eric Lee, that Vee International participates in occasional nationwide tradeshows in various large cities -notably not D.C. - at which vendors, who “[c]ould be [from] anywhere, ” approach the company and place orders directly at the booth. See ECF No. 18, Attach. 1 (Deposition of Eric Lee) at 16; see also Pl. Opp. at 6. Although Lee recounted no sale to or contact with any vendor from the District, he also never explicitly ruled out the possibility that such interaction had occurred. See Lee Depo. at 16. Pinkett argues that this activity supports a finding that Vee International purposefully sought business in the District. See Pl. Opp. at 6. This contention is wholly unconvincing. Without any evidence that any D.C. vendor has ever placed orders at such a tradeshow, this Court will not treat her conjecture as a contact. The Supreme Court, moreover, has already rejected the idea that a manufacturer's desire to distribute to customers throughout the United States establishes minimum contacts in a particular state. See Williams, 756 F.3d at 784-85 (noting that “six justices agreed” in Nicastro that “the forum state could not constitutionally assert jurisdiction over the foreign manufacturer based on . . . the manufacturer's desire that the distributor pursue customers throughout the United States”). Under the logical extension of Pinkett's theory, Vee's acknowledgment that vendors could be from “anywhere” would suffice to establish minimum contacts in every state, territory, and district within the United States. Due process clearly requires more. Such an expansive interpretation risks “shred[ding] these constitutional assurances out of practical existence.” GTE New Media Servs., 199 F.3d at 1350.

         Second, Plaintiff identifies a retailer in College Park, Maryland - some miles from the District line - that carries Defendant's products and can be located through the Store Locator tool on Vee International's website. See Pl. Opp. at 6-7; see also ECF No. 18, Attach. 3 (Website Store Locator Screenshot). Notably, however, the website does not permit direct-to-consumer sales. See Lee Depo. at 21-22. Pinkett nevertheless argues that the existence of this store supports a finding that the manufacturer “purposefully availed itself of the forum. See Pl. Opp. at 6-7. She contends that, given the proximity of ...

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