We’ve mentioned it a time or two in previous articles on defamation, but we’re going to say it again: The internet has had a monumental effect on the nature, and sheer volume of defamation claims out there today. 

Indeed, it’s rare we ever encounter a case or claim of defamation that didn’t originate on the internet. Even more specifically, it’s rare that we ever encounter a defamation case that didn’t originate on–or orbit in some way around–Facebook. 

Just like mold grows in warm, damp environments, defamation flourishes in exactly the sorts of conditions that exist on Facebook. It’s a virtual hub where gossip flourishes, and where some folks decide to publicly air their beefs with others; there’s no fact-checking requirement, or lag-time between one’s writing something and its publication. With this sort of environment, then, it’s not surprising that a vast majority of defamation cases we see have some sort of nexus to Facebook. 

So how does the internet–and specifically Facebook–affect the litigation of a defamation case? 

Not to put too fine a point on it, but whether or not the alleged defamation took place on Facebook can turn a winning case into a loser in an instant – depending on certain factors. 

This all has to do with a term you’ve no doubt heard before: Jurisdiction. Jurisdiction is the concept of whether or not a court has authority over the parties in a case, or over a case itself. If a court has jurisdiction, then the court has authority to make rulings that bind the parties to act. If a court does not have jurisdiction, then that particular court doesn’t have authority to order the parties to do anything. 

Jurisdiction is simultaneously a very simple and an extremely complicated issue. It’s the very first question a court wants answered when a case comes before it: Does this court have jurisdiction over this case and the parties in it?

Jurisdiction, very frequently, has to do with the location of the parties in the case. Where do the parties live? If the Plaintiff (suing party) lives in Timbuktu, and the Defendant (sued party) lives in Nome, Alaska, a Utah court is going to have questions about why the case is being brought in Utah. This isn’t to say a case with these parties couldn’t be brought in Utah; sometimes contracts will dictate where a case should be brought, or perhaps there is Utah property at issue in the case. But for purposes of this article, the location (namely, residence) of the parties is often the pivotal inquiry. 

Turning back to the question of Facebook’s impact on defamation cases, it may start to become clear why jurisdiction is such an important question here. The internet facilitates communication and socialization among people from all over the world. Let’s imagine an example:

Meet Paulie Plaintiff. Paulie lives and works in Salt Lake City, Utah. Now meet Dudley Defendant. Dudley lives in Tampa, Florida. One day, Dudley writes on Facebook that: “Paulie Plaintiff has a long, sordid history of stealing cash from his employers. He is a contemptible, larcenous kleptomaniac.” Paulie’s employer sees the post and decides to fire Paulie because of it. For purposes of this example, let’s imagine that Paulie Plaintiff is a perfect boy scout; he’s never stolen a dime in his life and the very idea of doing anything unlawful makes him break out in hives. Dudley’s Facebook post, then, is false; Paulie is not a thief. 

On its face, this would look like a decent defamation claim (See Defamation 101 article): It was published to multiple people; it is false; there’s no obvious privilege; and Paulie suffered damages as a result of it. Not a bad start. 

So let’s say Paulie sues Dudley in a Utah state court. The first thing Dudley’s lawyer says in response to the lawsuit? “This Court has no jurisdiction over my client.”

It’s the right argument to make. But will it win? 

Dudley lives in Florida, not Utah. That’s not the end of the inquiry, though. Questions of whether a court has jurisdiction over a person are highly fact-dependent. For example, has Dudley ever been to Utah? If so, what kinds of connections does he have there? Maybe he has family in Utah, or travels there regularly for business. Maybe he lived in Utah during college. All of this, as attenuated as it seems from the defamation case, is relevant to the question of whether the court has jurisdiction over Dudley. 

Let’s imagine that Dudley has never been to Utah, and has no family, personal, or business connections here. Based on these circumstances, a Utah state court may determine it does not have jurisdiction over Dudley and dismiss the case. That’s right – without jurisdiction, a court will dismiss the case.

“But wait!” cries Paulie. “Even though Dudley is in Florida, he wrote a post about me, Paulie, here in Utah. I lost my job here!” The judge shrugs. 

And for better or worse, the judge is right. The law does not permit a court to obtain jurisdiction over a defendant in a defamation case simply because the effects of the defamation were felt in a certain location. That is, just because Dudley’s post caused negative effects for Paulie in Utah, without Dudley having any other connections to Utah, those negative effects of Paulie’s internet post are insufficient to give a court jurisdiction over Dudley. 

So the Utah state court dismisses the case. Paulie still has some recourse, though. He has two main options: (1) He can sue Dudley in Florida state court; or (2) he can try to sue Dudley in federal court. 

The first option is frustrating because, as a Utah resident, it is obviously more inconvenient for Paulie to litigate in Florida. It’s not impossible, but those situations tend to result in higher costs for plaintiffs in Paulie’s situation. 

The second option–federal court–is only possible if certain criteria are met. In this case, it appears that the criteria for federal court would be that (a) each party is a resident of a different state; and (b) that the amount Paulie is suing for exceeds $75,000 (i.e. be at least $75,001). The first criteria appears to be satisfied. Paulie lives in Utah and Dudley lives in Florida. It’s the second criteria that is the harder to establish. As we discussed in our Defamation 101 article, establishing damages is often the most difficult part of any defamation case. In order to sue Dudley in federal court, Paulie would have to allege–with some ability to back it up–that his damages exceed the threshold amount of $75,001. For most normal folks (read: non-celebrity), you don’t see many defamation cases brought in federal court because of this $75,000 threshold. It’s not impossible to do, by any means, but is more difficult. 

As you can see, then, jurisdiction is a major issue to be aware of when considering defamation cases – especially those involving statements made online. If the other party doesn’t live in your state, it could result in serious roadblocks to a successful claim. Then again, those roadblocks could prove easily navigable with the proper legal help. For this reason, as always, if you are considering a defamation claim, or are being threatened with a defamation lawsuit, please contact Hepworth and Associates today.

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