Remembering the Fundamentals: Personal Jurisdiction as an Escape Hatch

Remembering the Fundamentals: Personal Jurisdiction as an Escape Hatch

Defense attorneys must be alert to jurisdictional issues when they first receive a complaint because, unlike subject matter jurisdiction, personal jurisdiction can be waived by an attorney’s failure to raise the issue at the first opportunity. While this issue is unlikely to arise in most cases, a more careful review of the initial pleadings can sometimes be the difference between ending litigation before it begins and allowing your client to risk liability in a court that never had the authority to hear the case in the first place In a recent case, an appellate court in New Jersey reviewed jurisdictional issues and highlighted their potential impact in a case.[i]

 

Factual Background

Gloria Gomez (“Gomez”), a resident of Morris County, New Jersey, began experiencing dental problems in August of 2016.[ii] To remedy those problems, Gomez visited the Clear Choice Dental Implant Center (“Clear Choice”) owned by Felicia Wilson, DDS, MS, MD (“Dr. Wilson”), located in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania.[iii] Dr. Wilson lived in Pennsylvania and was not a New Jersey resident.[iv] As part of Gomez’s course of treatment, Dr. Wilson installed surgical dental implants.[v]

Just over a year after her final treatment with Dr. Wilson, Gomez began treating with a new dentist, Dr. Michael Gale (“Dr. Gale”) closer to her home in Newark, New Jersey.[vi] Dr. Gale informed Gomez that Dr. Wilson was negligent in performing the dental implant surgery, contributing to the ongoing complications she was experiencing.[vii]

 

Procedural Background

After being informed of Dr. Wilson’s alleged negligence, Gomez filed a dental malpractice claim in the Morris County Superior Court against Dr. Wilson and her dental clinic.[viii] Gomez’s complaint, however, alleged the surgery took place in Essex County, New Jersey, rather than in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, where it actually occurred.[ix]

Dr. Wilson filed an answer asserting lack of jurisdiction and, subsequently, a motion to dismiss the complaint on the same basis.[x] In support of her motion to dismiss, Dr. Wilson filed a certification asserting she had insufficient contacts with New Jersey to permit personal jurisdiction because (1) she never operated or practiced in a Clear Choice center in New Jersey and (2) she only treated Gomez at the Clear Choice center in Pennsylvania.[xi] In her response, Gomez attached a copy of a listing on Clear Choice’s website identifying Dr. Wilson as a physician in its Mount Laurel, New Jersey, clinic.[xii] At a subsequent hearing on the motion, Dr. Wilson’s counsel argued that the Mount Laurel center opened in November of 2017, several months after Gomez stopped treating with Dr. Wilson.[xiii]

At the hearing on Dr. Wilson’s motion, the trial court judge raised the possibility that jurisdictional discovery was needed to determine whether Dr. Wilson owned or worked at the Mount Laurel clinic.[xiv] Accepting Dr. Wilson’s arguments about the timing of Gomez’s treatment and the opening of the Clear Choice clinic in New Jersey, however, the judge granted the motion to dismiss without additional discovery because of there was “no likelihood that such limited discovery w[ould] prove fruitful.”[xv]

Gomez appealed the trial court’s order granting Dr. Wilson’s motion to dismiss, arguing Dr. Wilson’s factual assertions were insufficient to support her motion to dismiss on jurisdictional grounds.[xvi] The appellate division agreed that the trial court lacked specific jurisdiction, but nevertheless concluded that the court still erred in granting the motion to dismiss based on general jurisdiction.[xvii] The appellate division further concluded that the trial court should have permitted limited discovery regarding Clear Choice’s in-state activities prior to the filing of Gomez’s May 2020 complaint to determine whether the court could exercise general jurisdiction.[xviii] The court reversed the decision below and remanded for further proceedings.[xix]

On remand, the parties discovered that “Clear Choice Dental Implant Centers” was improperly named as a defendant in Gomez’s complaint because it was not a legally recognized corporate entity.[xx] The complaint was then amended to name Implant Dentistry Associates of Philadelphia, P.C. (“Implant Dentistry”) as a defendant instead of Clear Choice, as this was the entity responsible for managing the clinic in Pennsylvania where Gomez received her treatment.[xxi] Dr. Wilson confirmed all of Gomez’s treatment was performed in Pennsylvania and asserted that the Clear Choice facility in New Jersey was a wholly separate entity from Implant Dentistry.[xxii] Gomez offered no evidence disputing either contention.[xxiii]

During the remand proceedings, the trial court permitted Gomez ample opportunity to conduct jurisdictional discovery.[xxiv] Gomez served two sets of interrogatories and received written responses to both sets.[xxv] The trial court also granted Gomez a time extension to propound additional discovery, but Gomez never propounded further requests and never filed any motions seeking further responses or additional information from Dr. Wilson or Implant Dentistry.[xxvi]

At the close of jurisdictional discovery, Dr. Wilson again filed a motion to dismiss Gomez’s complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction.[xxvii] The trial court again granted the motion, concluding that it lacked general jurisdiction because Dr. Wilson was not domiciled in New Jersey, Gomez failed to show that Implant Dentistry had any contacts with New Jersey, and Gomez admitted that all of her treatment occurred in Implant Dentistry’s Pennsylvania office.[xxviii]

Gomez again appealed the ruling on the motion to dismiss, this time arguing the trial court erred in concluding that New Jersey lacked general jurisdiction over Dr. Wilson and Implant Dentistry.[xxix]

 

Appellate Ruling

The appellate division affirmed the decision of the trial court, agreeing the court lacked general personal jurisdiction over both defendants.[xxx] Setting forth the general law governing general jurisdiction, the court reiterated a defendant must have “certain minimum contacts with the forum state” in order for the exercise of personal jurisdiction to not offend due process.[xxxi]

Unlike specific jurisdiction, however, a plaintiff seeking to establish general jurisdiction must prove more than the minimum contacts typically required in such cases. To establish general jurisdiction, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant has such “extensive,” “continuous,” and “systematic” contacts with the forum state that the defendant is essentially “at home” there.[xxxii] Only extensive and persistent contacts will permit a defendant to be sued for “virtually any claim, even if unrelated to the defendant’s contacts with the forum.”[xxxiii]

With the foregoing in mind, the appellate division turned to the case at hand. In affirming the trial court’s ruling on the motion to dismiss, court held Gomez failed to establish the existence of such extensive and persistent contacts with the forum to permit the exercise of general jurisdiction.[xxxiv] In fact, the court went further, concluding “defendants had no contacts with New Jersey” whatsoever.[xxxv] All relevant dental procedures were performed in Pennsylvania, Dr. Wilson was domiciled in Pennsylvania, and Implant Dentistry is a Pennsylvania corporation with offices located solely within that state.[xxxvi] Absent the extensive contacts due process requires, the Appellate Division held that neither Dr. Wilson nor Implant Dentistry were “at home” in New Jersey and affirmed the trial court’s decision to grant the motion to dismiss.[xxxvii]

 

Takeaway

This decision provides a useful reminder for all attorneys practicing insurance defense litigation, as well as for their clients and carriers. When a plaintiff files a complaint, it is often tempting to look past the fundamental threshold questions, focus on the specific allegations making up each cause of action, and file an answer or other responsive pleading solely with those allegations in mind.

However, questions of jurisdiction are critical and must be considered in every case. Absent personal jurisdiction, the court in which the client has been sued has no power over them and cannot force them to litigate in that forum.

 

 

 

Keep Reading

Sources


[i] See Gomez v. Wilson, No. A-1061-20, 2022 WL 200003, at *1 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Jan. 24, 2022) (unpublished).

[ii] Id.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Id.

[v] Id.

[vi] Id.

[vii] Id.

[viii] Id.

[ix] Id.

[x] Id.

[xi] Id.

[xii] Id.

[xiii] Id.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] Id. at *2.

[xvi] Id. at *1­–*2.

[xvii] Id. at *3.

[xviii] Id.

[xix] Id.

[xx] See Gomez v. Wilson, No. A-2332-22, 2024 WL 1610416, *1 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. April 15, 2024) (unpublished).

[xxi] Id.

[xxii] Id.

[xxiii] Id.

[xxiv] Id.

[xxv] Id.

[xxvi] Id.

[xxvii] Id.

[xxviii] Id.

[xxix] Id. at *2.

[xxx] Id. at *3.

[xxxi] Id. at *2 (citing Int’l Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 316 ̵̵ 17).

[xxxii] Id. (citing Mische v. Bracey’s Supermarket, 420 N.J. Super. 487, 492 (App. Div. 2011), Lebel v. Everglades Marina, Inc., 115 N.J. 317, 323 (1989), and Daimler AG v. Bauman, 571 U.S. 117, 128 (2014)).

[xxxiii] Id. (quoting Lebel, 115 N.J. at 323).

[xxxiv] Id.

[xxxv] Id.

[xxxvi] Id.

[xxxvii] Id.