Website activity alone sufficient to confer personal jurisdiction over non-resident website operator

United States of America

In Louis Vuitton Malletier SA v Mosseri (Case No 12-12501, December 2 2013), addressing whether a lower court had personal jurisdiction over a defendant found to have defaulted, the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has affirmed the lower court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to vacate default judgment, holding that the defendant’s activities fell within the Florida long-arm statute and that a finding of personal jurisdiction did not offend the traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.

The plaintiff, Louis Vuitton Malletier, sells high-end handbags and similar products. Louis Vuitton knew that its bags were being counterfeited and sold on unauthorised websites, but did not know who was selling them. The plaintiff filed a complaint against unidentified defendants associated with two websites and engaged a private investigator to determine the person or persons involved in running the websites. The complaint alleged trademark counterfeiting and infringement and false designation of origin.

Later, the plaintiff’s private investigators, who purchased counterfeit goods for the websites in question, determined that the defendant, Joseph Mosseri, was responsible for running the websites. The plaintiff amended its complaint to name Mosseri. The complaint included factual allegations that Mosseri engaged in illegal counterfeiting and trademark infringement through operation of a website that offered for sale and sold goods in Florida knowingly and intentionally, or with reckless disregard or wilful blindness to Louis Vuitton’s rights.

Mosseri received service of process and a copy of the complaint, but did not respond. The district court clerk entered default for a failure to answer or otherwise plead. The plaintiff’s motion for default judgment was later granted. Six months after being served the complaint, Mosseri moved to vacate the default judgment, arguing that he was never served and the court did not have personal jurisdiction over him. He later dropped the allegation that he was never served. In arguing that the court did not have personal jurisdiction, Mosseri argued that he lived in New York, and that the only way that goods ended up in Florida was because the defendants caused them to be shipped to Florida. After the district court denied Mosseri’s motion, he appealed.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit first considered whether the evidence established that Mosseri was involved with the offending websites. The court found that the plaintiff’s complaint established a prima facie case of jurisdiction, and, thus, the burden shifted to Mosseri to rebut that jurisdiction was appropriate. The court determined that Mosseri’s affidavit did not contain specific factual declarations with the affiant’s personal knowledge sufficient to have shifted the burden back to the plaintiff. The Eleventh Circuit concluded that, even if Mosseri was not the entire moving force behind the websites, he had a leading role.

The Eleventh Circuit next considered whether personal jurisdiction existed over Mosseri, a New York resident, under the Florida long-arm statute, and whether the exercise of jurisdiction would violate the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Regarding the long-arm statute, the court found that the plaintiff’s trademark allegations amounted to “tortious acts”, and that Mosseri’s tortious acts, although they may have started in New York, caused injury within Florida. The Eleventh Circuit rejected Mosseri’s attempts to hide behind a corporate shield, determining that the corporate shield defence does not apply to intentional torts.

The Eleventh Circuit also found that exercising jurisdiction over Mosseri did not violate due process. The plaintiff’s claims arose out of the defendant’s conduct with the state. Moreover, the court concluded that Mosseri purposefully did business in Florida and thus purposefully availed himself of the privilege of conducting activities within Florida. The court also concluded that exercising jurisdiction over Mosseri did not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice. The Eleventh Circuit therefore affirmed the lower court’s denial of Mosseri’s motion to vacate the default judgment.

Charles Hawkins, McDermott Will & Emery LLP, Washington DC

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