Monday, August 25, 2014

The Return of the Long-Arm

Fox v. Fox2014 VT 100

By Elizabeth Kruska

I love a good long-arm statute. I might need to find a new hobby.

Neal Fox is Eugene Fox’s uncle.

“Plaintiff Neal Fox’s brother adopted Eugene Fox when Defendant was an infant.” This might be factually accurate but it confused the heck out of me. I thought the sentence was about 4 different people. Then I drew a diagram and figured outyep, Neal is Eugene’s uncle. The fact Eugene was adopted as an infant seems a little like how in The Royal Tenenbaums, Gene Hackman’s character always referred to Gwenyth Paltrow’s character as “my adopted daughter.” 

Wait, where were we? Oh, right. Eugene, who is in his 60s, lives in New Hampshire, and Neal lives in Vermont. The two men attended a probate court hearing in Manchester, New Hampshire where, apparently, things did not go well. After the hearing Eugene accosted Neal, by punching, kicking, and stepping on him. Eugene also wrote down Neal’s license plate number, which was a Vermont plate. Neal ended up having to go to the hospital as a result of the affray. 

Oh! Think maybe the dispute in probate court had something to do with the fact that Eugene was an adopted member in the family? Who knows. The opinion doesn’t say. Nonetheless, I've been spending the better part of this post so far wondering about this.

Anyway, Neal went back home to lovely Windsor County, Vermont, and filed for a relief from abuse (RFA) order against Eugene. The temporary order was granted, and the final hearing got continued several times. At the final hearing, Eugene said, “Hey, wait, back up the truck. You don’t even have jurisdiction. I live in New Hampshire, and I beat up my uncle in New Hampshire after a New Hampshire probate court hearing, so you can’t even issue an order against me.” By the way, Eugene did get charged with assault in New Hampshire, and had conditions imposed, including one that he could not contact his uncle.

The trial court somehow found that there was personal jurisdiction and issued an order. The order included provisions preventing contact, harassment, and included a restriction on how close Eugene could come to Neal.

Eugene appealed, arguing the Vermont court didn’t have personal jurisdiction, and that there wasn’t a long-arm statute that could haul him across the Connecticut River to make him defend a claim here. A long-arm statute is a statute that allows a plaintiff in one state to bring an action against a defendant from another state in the plaintiff’s state (and I complained above about confusing sentences. Touché, me.). If a defendant has sufficient minimum contacts with plaintiff’s state, a suit can be proper in plaintiff’s state. Eugene said not only did he not have minimum contacts with Vermont, but the whole incident in question didn’t even happen in Vermont.

Neal felt the RFA statute itself acted as a long-arm statute, because it allows a request for an order to be filed in the plaintiff’s county of residence, or if the plaintiff has left that residence, the county in which the plaintiff now resides. It makes sense that Neal would think that since he lived in Windsor County, Vermont that he could file there, given the wording of the statute.

SCOV agrees with Eugene that there was no jurisdiction for the order. Unsurprisingly, this issue has come up in other states. People in relationships that become violent sometimes flee the relationship, and sometimes go to different states. That doesn’t make the relationship any less dangerousthe abusive party could easily follow the person to the new state. That person likely would want to seek the protections of a restraining order from the new state in order to keep him or herself safe.

The problem is that although restraining orders issued in compliance with the Violence Against Women Act are enforceable in all states, getting such an order is still subject to the requirements of jurisdiction, which is governed by the Due Process Clause. Courts point out that the plaintiff could get an order in the home state, and it would be enforceable in the new state. Practically speaking, that doesn’t always work; a plaintiff may not have the ability or means to go back to the home state, or it might be too dangerous to do so.

All this analysis doesn’t even seem to apply to situations where the parties just both legitimately reside in different states. People who live along state borders likely know and associate with people on the other side. Here in the Upper Connecticut River valley, it’s easy to forget what side of the river you’re on, and most people feel like the whole area is one larger community.

SCOV recognizes this and finds it to be unfortunate. However, SCOV is not ready to find personal jurisdiction where it just doesn’t exist.

SCOV looks at some cases from other states that have dealt with this issue. Other states have issued rulings that final orders can be issued against non-residents so long as the orders don’t impose obligations upon the non-resident defendants. For example, an order that required the return of property or required the defendant to take a batterers’ course went too far, but an order that simply prevented contact was okay.

SCOV isn’t comfortable with this. Any infringement on someone’s ability to move about is a restriction on liberty. And furthermore, issuance of an RFA makes the defendant ineligible from possessing firearms under federal law, which is definitely a restriction. Even issuing an order that says “no contact” or “stay away” has liberty restrictions, and SCOV says this isn’t something that can be done if there’s no jurisdiction.

SCOV declines to make an exception to allow personal jurisdiction in RFA matters for nonresidents.

So next, SCOV decides to figure out whether there is personal jurisdiction here, and says no. Vermont has general jurisdiction over entities who have minimum ties with Vermont. Are you a company that does business here? Do you own a vacation home here? Chances are those things could create some minimum ties. The fact that a New Hampshire resident assaulted a Vermont resident doesn’t create a tie to the state such that the defendant should have to defend an RFA here.

Legally speaking, this is probably the right result. Practically speaking, it’s easy to see where there now is a hole where people seeking RFAs might get stuck. It seems the only way this could be remedied is through legislation to extend long-arm powers under the RFA statute. Can the legislature even do that? I’m not sure, but it seems like if that protection could come from anywhere it would have to be through a legislative change. 

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