Recent Supreme Judicial Court Decision Signals Daimler Protections for Corporations Doing Business in Massachusetts

Recent Supreme Judicial Court Decision Signals Daimler Protections for Corporations Doing Business in Massachusetts

On January 4th, 2019, Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) issued a ruling in Roch v. Mollica (2019 WL 97904) which signals that the state will likely preserve greater Daimler jurisdictional protections for corporations under state law. The SJC acknowledged arguments by the Mass DLA that application of “common law jurisdiction,” wherein in-state service confers personal jurisdiction, would likely not apply to corporations. The defendants, the Mollica’s, however, did not fare as well when the trial court’s decision was reversed.

Roch was a freshman member of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) softball team when she suffered a shoulder injury, during spring training in Florida, as a result of a “hazing” incident that took place at a house that the Mollica’s were renting. The Mollica’s were served while attending a softball game at WPI, raising the question as to whether they were subject to personal jurisdiction in Massachusetts, despite the incident appearing unrelated to the commonwealth. While the case was originally dismissed by a Worcester Superior Court judge for a lack of personal jurisdiction, the SJC reversed this decision, stating that “Massachusetts courts have personal jurisdiction over nonresident individuals who are served with process while intentionally, knowingly, and voluntarily in Massachusetts.”

An amicus brief submitted by the Massachusetts Defense Lawyers Association, penned by MMM&K’s Jennifer Creedon, argued that by allowing the Mollica’s to be subject to personal jurisdiction, the SJC would go against the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Daimler. In Daimler, the Supreme Court concluded that a court may only exercise general personal jurisdiction in a forum where the defendant is “at home.” From a corporate standpoint, this is interpreted generally as the entity’s state of incorporation and state of its principal place of business. Therefore, by holding that personal service on an individual subjects them to personal jurisdiction in Massachusetts, the SJC would be drawing an unfair distinction between personal jurisdiction on individuals and corporations.

By way of background, the United States Supreme Court adopted the “at home” standard in Daimler in response to plaintiff’s shopping for a favorable jurisdiction, with the goal of ensuring that a nonresident defendant is not faced with burdensome litigation in potentially hostile forums and aiding in preserving the resources of the court. After Daimler, numerous plaintiff’s counsel in various jurisdictions argued that by requiring a corporation to have a registered agent to do business in that jurisdiction, the corporation is now subject to personal jurisdiction in that forum. Courts in Illinois, Florida, New Jersey, and others have regularly rejected this argument, ruling that doing some business in the state and designating a resident agent there was not sufficient to establish personal jurisdiction. Plaintiff’s counsel around the country continue to push courts to find that corporations with registered agents should be subject to personal jurisdiction in that state.

Based on the SJC’s decision in Roch, it appears that Massachusetts is signaling greater protection of corporations with respect to service of process. This is good for corporations brought into suits where their contact to the state is minimal or ubiquitous, such as registering to-do-business.

For further reading on this, see Law360’s “Anyone Served in Mass. Can be Sued in Mass., Justices Rule,” by Chris Villani. MMM&K thanks law clerk Matthew O’Neill for his excellent work on this brief.

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