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Walden v. Fiore: SCOTUS Reviews Limitless Personal Jurisdiction

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

We've heard of long-arm jurisdiction, but this case puts both Wilt Chamberlain's wingspan and Stretch Armstrong to shame.

Gina Fiore and Keith Gipson are professional gamblers. On their way back from rounding in Puerto Rico, they were questioned about the large amount of cash on their persons by a DEA agent. During their subsequent layover in Atlanta, another DEA agent, Anthony Walden, questioned them, and this time, seized their cash.

Despite the agent's best efforts, and an allegedly falsified probable cause affidavit, the pair proved that their money was from legal gambling, not drugs. Seven months after it was seized, their $97,000 was finally returned. They then sued Agent Walden and others in federal court in Nevada.

SCOTUS Week at FindLaw



Nevada? Yeah, Nevada. Though the money was seized in Atlanta, and the allegedly false affidavit and other misconduct took place in Atlanta, Fiore and Gipson are from Las Vegas. But can they sue there?

Ninth Circuit's Stretch

Because the search and seizure occurred in Georgia, and basically had nothing to do with Nevada, the district court dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction. The Ninth Circuit, somewhat sparingly, reversed.

The most controversial aspect of the Ninth Circuit's decision was it's holding that jurisdiction was proper because DEA Agent Walden knew that Walden and Fiore were from Nevada, and he thereby purposely directed his conduct at members of the forum state.

But how far could that logic go? If someone were to be punched in an airport in Virginia, wearing a UCLA sweater, and standing in the boarding area for a LAX-bound flight, could they then sue in their home state, even when the "events ... giving rise to the claim occurred" in Virginia?

Dissent From Denial of Rehearing

Judge McKeown's dissent from the denial of rehearing, argued as much, stating,

"With the stroke of a pen, our circuit returns to a discredited era of specific personal jurisdiction, where foreseeability reigns supreme and purposeful direction is irrelevant ... Under the majority's construct, mere knowledge of the potential out-of-state plaintiff's residence, along with a wrongful act, confers specific personal jurisdiction. This virtually limitless expansion of personal jurisdiction runs afoul of both due process guarantees and Supreme Court precedent."

What Will SCOTUS Do?

McKeown makes a great point, and if prior limits on personal jurisdiction are to mean anything, we'd imagine the Supreme Court would have to reverse. Then again, with more and more tortious conduct occurring interstate (think online fraud and other cyber misconduct), might this be an opportunity to revisit the rules of personal jurisdiction?

The dissenting judge noted that this is a case where "individuals traveling to Nevada with California drivers' licenses had their Puerto Rico gambling winnings seized while in transit in Georgia," but where would be a fair forum? They were on a layover in Georgia. Forcing them to sue there would be an undue hardship, as would forcing the Agent Walden to defend himself in Nevada.

Then again, he's the one who seized their property (and prepared an allegedly false and/or misleading affidavit), even though they were carrying proof that the money was legal gambling proceeds, not drug money.

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