What State Does the Harm Occur in When Adulterous Lovers Text and Email Each Other Across State Lines? — Knight v. Woodfield

[Post by Venkat Balasubramani]

Knight v. Woodfield, No. 2009-IA-01371-SCT (Mississippi; Jan 6, 2011)

Personal jurisdiction questions in cyberspace have been pretty well hashed out over the last ten years, and it’s tough to tell whether recent cases are breaking any new ground on this issue. My view is that they’re not – personal jurisdiction standards are somewhat mushy, and in my experience courts assert jurisdiction largely based on the merits and the equities (although their orders may couch their decisions in terms of various tests). (But see this post on two personal jurisdiction cases currently in front of the Supreme Court: “Supreme Court Grants Cert in Important Personal Jurisdiction Cases.” More on these cases – which were the subject of today’s oral argument from SCOTUSBlog: “Argument previews: When do state courts have general and specific jurisdiction?“)

Anyway, the Mississippi Supreme Court heard a case involving a lawsuit for alienation of affections brought by Eric Woodfield against William Knight. Woodfield and his then-wife (Kristina Dokka) resided in Mississippi from July 2006 to April 2007. Dokka commuted from Mississippi to her job in Louisiana, where she met, fell in love with, and later married her co-worker (and the defendant in this lawsuit) William Knight.

As the court describes it, Woodfield noticed a change in his marriage in January 2007. He noticed an increase in Dokka’s private use of her cell phone and computer (and a corresponding decrease in intimacy). This prompted Woodfield to access Dokka’s cell phone [computer crime alert!], and he discovered that in addition to sending him partially nude photos:

in February 2007, [Dokka] and Knight . . . exchanged 131 text messages . . . . [i]n March 2007, Dokka [and Knight] exchanged 807 text messages. . . . Knight and Dokka also exchanged numerous emails during this time. One email sent by Knight to Dokka stated, ‘I refuse to feel guilty about falling for you . . . [y]ou enter marriage by choice and you can leave it by choice anytime you choose.’

Upon discovering these communications, Woodfield emailed Knight and requested that Knight stop communicating with Dokka. Knight continued, despite Woodfield’s request.

Woodfield brought claims against Knight in Mississippi for alienation of affection. Knight moved to dismiss on the basis of personal jurisdiction. In response to Knight’s motion to dismiss, Woodfield claimed that “the communications between Knight and Dokka, while [Dokka] was physically present in Mississippi, had resulted in [Woodfield’s] loss of consortium, the damage of which had occurred entirely in Mississippi.” The trial court sided with Woodfield and denied Knight’s motion to dismiss. The Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed.

On appeal, the Mississippi Supreme Court ran through the (long arm statute/minimum contacts) personal jurisdiction analysis. The court found that Woodfield’s allegations that Knight texted, called, and emailed Dokka “while she was in Mississippi were the direct and proximate cause” of the injury, and these allegations were sufficient to bring the claim under the long-arm statute. With respect to minimum contacts, the court found that the emails, phone calls, and texts were sufficient minimum contacts to support the assertion of personal jurisdiction by Mississippi:

Knight knew that Dokka resided with Woodfield . . . in Mississippi . . . and exchanged more than 900 text messages in the course of two months . . . Knight and Dokka also exchanged numerous emails, chronicling their developing relationship.

The court also found that maintenance of the suit in Mississippi did not offend “traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.”

Two justices dissented on the basis that:

all of the in-person contacts between Dokka and Knight took place in Louisiana [and not Mississippi]. All telephone conversations and text messages between them were conveyed by or to Dokka’s Louisiana cell-phone number.

The dissenting justices were not swayed by the email contacts either:

[t]he fact that Dokka may have accessed emails in Mississippi is of no moment, as emails can be accessed anywhere.

The dissenting justices also added that it appeared from the emails that Dokka “independently” chose to leave the marriage [i.e., we’re not that excited about the merits of the case].

Given the volume of contacts, and the fact that Knight knew Dokka resided in Mississippi, the court reaches the right result under current personal jurisdiction doctrine (in particular Calder v. Jones, which looks to where the “effects” of the actions are felt – incidentally, the Calder v. Jones doctrine is under attack (see “Kill Calder v. Jones!“)). On the other hand, the dissenting justices raise a good point, although they ignore the off-line conduct and the fact that Knight had to have known that Dokka and her then-husband resided in Mississippi: the sender of an electronic communication often does not know where the recipient will access it, and this is something that is often raised in objection to varying state regulation of interstate electronic communications (e.g., state statutes that regulate online content). This raises another question. Louisiana does not appear to recognize alienation of affection as a tort, and the jurisdiction question could end up being dispositive. From the defendant’s perspective, this looks like a troublesome outreach of Mississippi laws to govern his conduct as a Louisiana resident. However, the fact that he must have known that Dokka and her then-husband resided in Mississippi and the harm would be felt there makes this a tough argument for the defendant to make here.

Loosely related: Minnesota v. Pierce – a case where a prosecution for violation of a protective order which prohibited email contact was set aside because the prosecutor failed to put forth evidence that the email was sent or opened in the county where defendant was prosecuted:

[w]hen the state prosecutes a person who has allegedly violated an order for protection under the Domestic Abuse Act by sending a prohibited message by electronic mail, venue is proper in the county from which the sender mailed the message or the county in which the recipient opened it.

Check out this post at Benchmarks on that case: “Prosecutor flubs e-mail harassment case.”