To tweet, or not to tweet? A recent court decision answers the question
A recent decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals sheds light on the dynamic relationship between users’ social media activity and courts’ personal jurisdiction over users arising from such activity.
In Johnson, et al. v. Griffin, 85 F.4th 429, Plaintiff—then-CEO of VisuWell, a burgeoning tech startup based in Tennessee—was seated for dinner in Franklin, Tennessee, when a group of 40 to 50 teenagers began taking prom pictures nearby. The group apparently became boisterous, and Plaintiff asked the group’s chaperone to settle them down. The ensuing altercation between Plaintiff and one of the teens was filmed. The video was posted to one of the teenager’s TikTok accounts, and soon made its way to X, formerly known as Twitter, where it gained the attention of comedian Kathy Griffin. Griffin re-tweeted the video to her 2 million followers, tagged VisuWell’s X account, and disclosed Plaintiff’s name, his wife’s name, his role as CEO of VisuWell, and his city of residence. By tagging VisuWell’s X account in her tweet, her tweet was sent directly to VisuWell. The tag also enabled readers of her tweet to link directly to the company’s profile, where they could interact with the company as they saw fit. Griffin then tweeted two pictures of Plaintiff’s face, along with a reiteration of his name and place of residence. In response to Griffin’s first tweet, several VisuWell customers condemned Plaintiff and threatened to reevaluate their ties with the company.
VisuWell announced Plaintiff’s firing by responding to Griffin’s original tweet. Griffin replied, ensuring Plaintiff was also fired from his position on VisuWell’s board, and that he would not be re-hired. “The nation will remain vigilant,” she wrote.
Plaintiff sued Griffin in Tennessee federal court alleging claims of tortious interference with employment, infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, and negligently causing injury. The district court dismissed Plaintiff’s suit for lack of personal jurisdiction over Griffin.
Determining personal jurisdiction
In determining whether the district court had personal jurisdiction over Griffin, the 6th Circuit reviewed only the possibility of “specific” jurisdiction arising from Griffin’s “case-related contacts,” and did not discuss the applicability of any Tennessee long-arm statute. “To possess specific jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant,” the court explained, “the defendant’s ‘suit-related conduct’ must show a ‘substantial connection with the forum State.’” Tortious conduct satisfies this requirement when the defendant intentionally cultivates contacts with the forum State, as opposed to forming “random, fortuitous, or attenuated contacts.”
Two cases—Calder v. Jones, and Walden v. Fiore—lay out the boundary lines for specific jurisdiction. On one end is Calder, a suit stemming from the publishing of a libelous article. There, the Supreme Court permitted a California court to exercise personal jurisdiction over the Floridian publishers where they had consulted sources from California, wrote an article of which California was the focal point, knew that the plaintiff would suffer the brunt of the injury in her home state of California, and the magazine had its largest circulation in California.
In Walden, on the other hand, the Supreme Court found that a Nevada federal court did not have personal jurisdiction over a defendant who seized plaintiffs’ cash at a Georgia airport. Even though the defendant formed contacts with plaintiffs and knew they lived in Nevada, he had never lived in nor traveled to Nevada, let alone conducted activities in or contacted anyone there. As such, the requirements for personal jurisdiction were not met.
The Sixth Circuit points out that this is not the first personal jurisdiction dispute arising from Kathy Griffin’s X activity. In Blessing v. Chandrasekhar, Griffin tweeted about an incident involving Kentucky students who were on a trip to Washington, D.C. She encouraged her millions of followers to “name” and “shame” the kids, and “let [their school] know how you feel about their students’ behavior.” The Sixth Circuit found in Blessing that Griffin’s actions would not have granted the Kentucky federal court personal jurisdiction over Griffin. Now, Griffin and Blessing serve as the bookends for determining whether social media users’ posts leave them susceptible to the personal jurisdiction of a given court.
In Blessing, Griffin’s tweet did not meet the requirements for personal jurisdiction in Kentucky because:
- She never communicated directly with the school, and did not urge the school to dismiss the students.
- The tweet arose from conduct that took place in Washington D.C., and not Kentucky.
- The students felt the tweets’ harm wherever they were located at the time, not just in Kentucky.
- The students were not dismissed as a result of Griffin’s tweet.
In Griffin, the district court was found to have personal jurisdiction when:
- Griffin’s tweet concerned the activities of a Tennessee resident (which took place in Tennessee).
- The tweet called into question Plaintiff’s professionalism, whose career was centered in Tennessee.
- The tweet was drawn from Tennessee sources (the teenagers and the video, which was taken in Tennessee).
- Griffin directly communicated with a Tennessee company.
- Griffin intended that the brunt of the harm would befall Plaintiff in Tennessee.
- Griffin urged her followers to pressure VisuWell, a Tennessee-based company, to fire Plaintiff.
- Griffin repeatedly emphasized Plaintiff’s residence in Tennessee as well as his employer’s headquarters in Nashville.
- Griffin’s contacts with VisuWell went beyond targeting Plaintiff, and affected the state and its economy more broadly.
As social media use moves headlong into ubiquity, jurisprudence regarding courts’ personal jurisdiction over social media users will do its best to evolve alongside it. The McDonald Hopkins litigation team is well-versed in jurisdictional issues and available to answer any of your questions.