Facebook can’t be sued in Alabama… for now. So says the Alabama Supreme Court, which ruled that despite the millions of Facebook accounts active in the state, the courts lacked personal jurisdiction over the social media company.
A Mean Facebook Page
Facebook was a defendant in a lawsuit in Alabama because of a much publicized adoption dispute. After a biological mother’s objection to an adoption became national news, someone unrelated to the dispute – a resident of New York state – created a Facebook page dedicated to reuniting the biological mother with her child.
The Facebook page published the identity and full names of the people involved, in violation of Alabama Adoption law and led to cyberbullying of the adoptive mother. The adoptive mother sued in Alabama and got an injunction – an immediate order from the court – directing Facebook to remove the page.
Facebook appealed the Alabama trial court’s injunction arguing that despite the many Facebook accounts in Alabama, Alabama courts lacked personal jurisdiction over the company. At the time Facebook claimed (and the court accepted) that it owned no property and had no employees in Alabama. Facebook’s headquarters is in California and was incorporated (i.e., formed) in Delaware.
The Court’s Ruling
The Alabama Supreme Court dismissed the injunction for want of personal jurisdiction over Facebook. The Alabama Supreme Court ruled that there was no “general” personal jurisdiction over Facebook in Alabama because it is organized in Delaware and its main offices are in California. The court also ruled there was no “specific” personal jurisdiction over Facebook because it felt the case did not arise out of Facebook’s activity in Alabama.
Why does the Internet Confuse Courts?
The Alabama Supreme Court could have looked at Facebook, it’s abundant activities in Alabama, the way in which it licenses user’s information and complies and sells their data, and the diffuse and transient nature of data on the internet to rule that Facebook suit-related conduct created a “substantial connection” with Alabama, which thereby subjected it to suit here. Instead the Alabama Supreme Court focused on the letters between Plaintiff’s counsel and Facebook seeking to limit or close down the anti-adoption Facebook page. While – as framed – the court’s opinion is consistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedent, it seems as if the Alabama Supreme Court could have framed the case differently.
Implications for Escaping Suit
- The case may or may not have a long effect. Facebook is opening up a data center in Huntsville, Alabama, which may change a future court’s calculation about whether Facebook can be sued in Alabama;
- Facebook has limited policies on whether it will respond to subpoenas. It is possible that without personal jurisdiction over Facebook, court’s will not be able to enforce subpoenas over the company;
- If the Courts can’t enforce subpoenas for deleted Facebook information it is likely to encourage destruction of evidence (i.e., Facebook pages and posts) especially in criminal and domestic cases; and
- When future litigants seek to pull Facebook in to Court in Alabama, they should emphasize the property rights and activities of Facebook, it’s collection and sale of information of Alabama users in an attempt to shift future courts’ analysis of whether the company is “substantially connected” to the dispute at hand.
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