When It Comes To Long-Arm Jurisdiction, Unpredictability Rules

by Lee Gesmer on October 4, 2006

Lawyers know that one of the most unpredictable decisions a Superior Court judge can make involves long-arm jurisdiction – that is, whether the defendant has enough “contacts” with the state to be sued here. (For an article by the author discussing the state long-arm statute in depth, click here).

Two recent decisions illustrate this point. In Saint-Gobain Ceramics v. Happy Hewes Judge Bruce Henry ruled that there was no personal jurisdiction over Hewes, who lived in Illinois, despite the fact that Hewes had been an employee of Saint-Gobain, engaged in phone calls with Saint-Gobain in Massachusetts, had made multiple visits to Massachusetts on company business and had received paychecks from Saint-Gobain’s facility in the state. Most lawyers would tell you that this was more than enough to establish personal jurisdiction, but Judge Henry disagreed, noting that “whatever Hewes did during the unspecified number of contacts with Massachusetts was at his employer’s behest and not for his own purposes.” This line of reasoning has little basis in Massachusetts law that I’m aware of, but it persuaded Judge Henry, who dismissed the case against Happy Hewes, leaving Saint-Gobain to pursue him in Illinois.

On the other hand, in Deutch Williams v. Naturopathic Laboratories Int’l a Massachusetts law firm sued its former client for attorney’s fees. Even though the former client had no operations in Massachusetts and had never visited here in connection with the representation, Judge John Cratsley held that the client’s decision to hire the Massachusetts law firm, together with communications between the law firm and its client over a period of seven months, was enough to establish jurisdiction.

It’s hard to reconcile these two decisions on legal grounds. There’s little doubt that had the cases (but not the judges) been switched, the outcome in the two cases would have been reversed. The moral? The outcome of long-arm jurisdiction motions are hard to predict at best, but the luck of the draw (which judge you draw, that is), may have a greater impact on the outcome than the facts of the case.

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