Applying High Court Jurisdiction Rulings, Federal Judge Shuts Out Suit Against Foreign Soccer Federation

headerGuest Commentary

By Ashley Snell, a 2015 Judge K.K. Legett Fellow at the Washington Legal Foundation and a student at Texas Tech School of Law.

After finding some success in its concussion-related class actions against professional and amateur football associations, noted plaintiffs’ firm Hagens Berman has taken aim at the world’s most popular sport—soccer. The firm has sued a number of soccer organizations, including the much-maligned Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), for failing to provide proper concussion management for players. The Zurich, Switzerland-based federation, obviously averse to playing defense on (or rather, in) the plaintiffs’ home court (U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California), moved to dismiss. The result in Mehr v. Federation Internationale de Football Association exhibits the far-reaching impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s game-changing general-jurisdiction decisions.

In its 2014 Daimler AG v. Bauman decision, the Court offered defendants highly specific guidance on defeating general jurisdiction. Several past WLF Legal Pulse commentaries have addressed Bauman (here and here). In a nutshell, Argentinian plaintiffs sued a German company, over events that took place in Argentina, in a California federal court. The Court’s opinion limited general jurisdiction over corporations to its principal place of business, its state of incorporation, and “an exceptional case” that renders the defendant at home in that state.

In Mehr, Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton agreed with FIFA that it was not “at home” in California for purposes of litigation. FIFA, she explained, is a registered Swiss association with its principal place of business in Zurich. In its reply to FIFA’s motion, the plaintiffs tried to establish that the federation’s affiliations fit it into the Supreme Court’s “exceptional case” category because they were “so continuous and systematic as to render it [FIFA] at home in the forum state . . . i.e., comparable to a domestic enterprise in that State.” Judge Hamilton responded that such contacts relate to commercial activities that were “no more numerous in California than in any other state (or possibly elsewhere in the world).”

During oral argument on FIFA’s motion, plaintiffs’ attorney Steven Berman conceded that his clients could not establish general jurisdiction over FIFA. He was equally unsuccessful in attempting to demonstrate that the court had specific jurisdiction over the defendant. Judge Hamilton found that FIFA did not “purposefully avail” itself of the privilege of conducting business activities in California, and that the plaintiffs’ claims did not arise from any specific contacts FIFA had within the state.

Readers of the WLF Legal Pulse’s many commentaries on food-labeling class actions should be quite familiar with the Northern District of California, which WLF dubbed “the Food Court.” Class-action lawyers flock to that court because its judges have a reputation for leniency towards such suits. The ease with which FIFA, a rather unsympathetic defendant, was able to prevail on the general jurisdiction issue in such a plaintiff-friendly jurisdiction illustrates the clarity and force of the Supreme Court’s Bauman ruling. Lawyers of Mr. Berman’s caliber normally concede very little in court, but even he knew the general jurisdiction argument was akin to a desperation mid-field shot.

In addition to defendants, federal judges with jam-packed dockets should be applauding Bauman and decisions like Mehr that decisively apply it. Post-Bauman, general-jurisdiction jurisprudence allows for a more straight-forward analysis that provides for a swifter, more efficient disposition of issues. The overall administration of justice in the U.S. is fairer for everyone when judges quickly dispense with lawsuits that should have been filed in another U.S. court—or perhaps a court in another country.

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