Without personal jurisdiction over a defendant, a court cannot exercise its powers. And when it comes to non-U.S. companies who want to avoid being dragged to court in the U.S., Alibaba Group Holdings Limited v. Alibabacoin Foundation, No. 18-CV-2897 (S.D.N.Y.) and In re Tezos Securities Litigation, No. 17-CV-06779-RS (N.D. Cal.) show that the traditional jurisdictional analysis applies to blockchain technologies as much as to traditional companies. To further minimize the risks of U.S. litigation, blockchain-related companies should also heed the lessons derived from case law related to online businesses – other creatures of the modern age. This is the second part of our series discussing jurisdictional questions for blockchain and cryptocurrency companies. The first part, which can be read here, focused on how the location of the blockchain nodes may affect the court’s analysis.
U.S. courts can exercise personal jurisdiction over a foreign defendant who has either a continuous and systematic presence in the state (general jurisdiction) or “minimum contacts” with the state such that the exercise of jurisdiction “does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice” (specific jurisdiction). “General” or “all purpose” jurisdiction permits a court to hear all claims against the defendant, while “specific” or “case-linked” jurisdiction permits only those claims which stem from the defendant’s forum-related contacts (see Walden v. Fiore, 571 U.S. 277 (2014)). While some states have adopted additional long-arm statutes, the federal due process requirements must always be satisfied.
Most courts analyze the “minimum contacts” for specific jurisdiction in a three-part inquiry: (1) Does the claim arise out of the defendants’ forum-related contacts? (2) Did the defendant purposefully avail itself of the forum’s laws? and (3) Is exercising jurisdiction reasonable? We will now look at the second prong of the test and the steps that non-U.S. companies setting up operations can take to avoid purposeful availment.
In both Alibabacoin and In Re Tezos, the courts found that a foreign blockchain company with few physical contacts with the United States had purposefully availed itself of the U.S. laws. These cases conform with the principles found in case law related to online businesses. Following is a list of the relevant factors that courts have found showing purposeful availment by Belarus and Dubai defendants in Alibabacoin, by a Swiss defendant in In Re Tezos, and by various other online companies in other cases:
- An interactive website accessible in the U.S.: The courts in both Alibabacoin and Tezos agreed that an interactive website available in the U.S., alone, is not sufficient for personal jurisdiction. But the more functional the website, the more likely a court is to find personal jurisdiction (with additional factors present). For example, in Alibabacoin, the court found it relevant that the defendants’ website allowed a user to (1) register a cryptocurrency wallet, (2) access and download content about the Alibabacoin cryptocurrency and white paper, and (3) interact and contact sales representatives with questions.
- Using U.S. servers: If the claims brought against a foreign defendant stem from its online activity, the location of the servers can be relevant. In the Tezos case, the court found that the Swiss defendant’s use of Arizona servers was relevant to the securities law claims and personal jurisdiction (although insufficient on its own to establish jurisdiction). And in Alibabacoin, a trademark case, the court stated that “whether Alibabacoin’s Wallet website is actually hosted on servers physically located in New York may also be relevant to the personal jurisdiction inquiry.”
- Blocking IP address or providing notice to U.S. viewers: A very recent U.S. appellate court case noted that to avoid purposeful availment of U.S. laws, online businesses should consider blocking U.S. IP addresses (Plixer International, Inc. v Scrutinizer GmbH, 2018 WL 4357137 (1st Cir. 2018)). Even if the technical solution does not keep out all U.S. visitors, the Plixer court stated that the blocking attempt shows intent to avoid U.S. customers and is thus relevant to the jurisdictional analysis. If blocking is too aggressive a business strategy, foreign companies can try to avoid jurisdiction by adding notices on the website that their services or products are not available and intended to be used in the U.S.
- Marketing and advertising in the U.S.: Avoiding U.S.-specific media and U.S.-specific discussions can further improve a company’s chances in the jurisdictional analysis. In the Tezos case, the court found that the Swiss defendant using a “de facto U.S. marketing arm” and mostly marketing the ICO in the U.S. showed purposeful availment. The same was illustrated in the Alibabacoin case by the finding that over one thousand New Yorkers visited the defendants’ website and at least one New York resident purchased the tokens.
- Employees or agents working in the U.S.: If possible, non-U.S. companies should avoid moving their employees to the U.S., hiring in the U.S., or using U.S. agents. This was an important issue in the Tezos case: the court noted that the defendant “kept at least one employee or agent in the United States,” and this was “responsive” to the purposeful availment test.
- Working with U.S. service providers: Although for any contacts in question to create jurisdiction, they must give rise to the claims at issue (step 1 in the “minimum contacts” test), limiting reliance on contacts with U.S. service providers outright can lower the jurisdictional risk. In In re Tezos, the Swiss defendant’s use of a “de facto marketing arm in the U.S.” was an important factor in the court’s analysis. In Alibabacoin, the non-U.S. defendant had dealings with a U.S. company (Digital Ocean), which hosted the Alibabacoin website. But, in contrast to Tezos, because the plaintiff had not showed that Digital Ocean had an “active role” in administering the website or that Digital Ocean’s servers were hosted in New York, the court did not rely on this relationship as a basis for finding jurisdiction. Moreover, contacts with U.S. businesses can overlap with the previous point on marketing. For example, if a company used Google Ad Words to target areas of the U.S., it might increase the chances of the courts finding jurisdiction.
- Voluntary sales to the U.S.: Depending on the facts, claims and the state’s long-arm statute, even a few intentional sales into the U.S. may prove purposeful availment. For example, in Alibabacoin, the court highlighted that the plaintiff “presented evidence that at least one New York resident ha[d] purchased Alibabacoin on three occasions.” And in In Re Tezos, the court stated that a “significant portion” of the 30,000 ICO contributors were in the U.S. Similarly, after analyzing the federal case law on this issue, the Plixer court held that a German cloud computing company which “voluntarily service[d] the U.S. market” and made around $200,000 should have “reasonably anticipated being haled into U.S. court.” That court also noted that the Oregon Supreme Court had found jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant that had sold over 1000 battery chargers totalling about $30,000 (Willemsen v. Invacare Corp., 352 Or. 191 (2012) (en banc)), while a district court in New Jersey did not exercise specific jurisdiction over a defendant who had made fewer than 10 in-state sales totalling $3,383 (Oticon, Inc. v. Sebotek Hearing Sys., LLC, 865 F.Supp.2d 501 (D. N.J. 2011)). Accordingly, voluntary and intentional sales to the U.S. should not be made and, if sales occur, blocking U.S. website visitors, or at least providing clear notice, becomes crucial.
When analyzing specific personal jurisdiction, the courts generally examine these factors together, and it is difficult to rank them in order of importance. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected in the coming years to decide on when online contacts are sufficient to create specific personal jurisdiction. Until then, In Re Tezos, Alibabacoin, and case law on online businesses serve as good guidance for non-U.S. blockchain companies.