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Lecheek Nutrition, Inc. v. Thermolife International, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division

October 2, 2017




         Currently before the Court are a Motion to Dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim (Doc. 12), Brief in Support (Doc. 13), and Supporting Exhibits (Doc. 13-1) submitted by Defendants Thermolife International, Inc. ("Thermolife"), Ronald Kramer ("Kramer"), and Stanford University ("Stanford"). Plaintiff Lecheek Nutrition ("Lecheek") has filed a response in opposition (Doc. 17). The Court heard oral argument during a case management conference held on September 13, 2017. For the reasons given below, Defendants' Motion is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART. The case is, accordingly, DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Lecheek, an Arkansas corporation, alleges that Defendants Thermolife, its proprietor or CEO Ronald Kramer, and Stanford University have engaged in what amounts to a fraudulent patent licensing scheme. According to Plaintiff, Thermolife and Kramer purchase patent rights from Stanford University and then, through the sending of cease-and-desist letters threatening patent infringement litigation (or through actual litigation), "extort companies in the marketplace into paying 'licensing fees' to [Thermolife] for the permission to continue manufacturing and selling companies' already existing products that allegedly infringe on [Thermolife] and [Kramer's] patents and applications." (Doc. 1, ¶1).

         Unfortunately for Plaintiff, this is not its first interaction with Thermolife. For, back in 2012, Thermolife sued Lecheek and a number of other companies in the Central District of California claiming that their products were violating a Thermolife patent. Although that patent, which was later invalidated, is not the subject of the present case, it is obvious that this history of litigation between the two parties has led to a considerable amount of frustration on Plaintiff's part. Thus, when Plaintiff received a cease-and-desist letter from Thermolife and Kramer alleging that Plaintiff's products infringed upon three separate patents owned by Thermolife, it filed the present lawsuit.

         Rather than seeking a declaratory judgment that those three patents are invalid or that its products do not infringe upon those patents, Plaintiff contends that Defendants' use of the postal service and CM/ECF system to send cease-and-desist letters and file infringement lawsuits amounts to mail and wire fraud that is actionable under a number of causes of action, including Civil RICO, conspiracy, and fraud. Defendants deny these allegations and assert that they, as Arizona and California citizens, are not subject to personal jurisdiction in the Western District of Arkansas.


         "To allege personal jurisdiction, a 'plaintiff must state sufficient facts in the complaint to support a reasonable inference that the defendant can be subjected to jurisdiction within the state."' Wells Dairy, Inc. v: Food Movers Int'l, 607 F.3d 515, 518 (8th Cir. 2010) (quoting Dever v. Hentzen Coatings, Inc., 380 F.3d 1070, 1072 (8th Cir. 2004)) (alteration omitted). The Court "must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and resolve all factual conflicts in the plaintiffs favor." Digi-Tel Holdings, Inc. v. Proteq Telecomm. (PTE), Ltd., 89 F.3d 519, 522 (8th Cir. 1996). However, the Plaintiff bears the burden of proving sufficient facts to support a prima facie showing of personal jurisdiction. Id. Importantly for the present case, personal jurisdiction must be assessed with regard to each defendant. See Rush v. Savchuk, 444 U.S. 320, 332 (1980).

         There are two parts to any personal jurisdiction analysis: determining whether the state's long-arm statute permits service of process and analyzing whether there are sufficient minimum contacts with the forum such that maintaining the action would not violate due-process. As to the first, the Arkansas long-arm statute authorizes the exercise of personal jurisdiction to the maximum extent permitted by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Ark. Code Ann. § 16-4-101 (B); see also Epps v. Stewart Info. Serv. Corp., 327 F.3d 642, 647 (8th Cir. 2003). As a result, whether this Court can exercise personal jurisdiction over these Defendants will depend upon whether they have sufficient contacts with Arkansas such that maintaining this suit here would comport with due process. Dever, 380 F.3d at 1073.

         The Due Process Clause allows courts to exercise personal jurisdiction only when a defendant has "certain minimum contacts" with the forum state "such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice." Int'l Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 316 (1945). This standard "presaged the development of two categories of personal jurisdiction": general jurisdiction and specific jurisdiction. Daimler AG v. Bauman, 134 S.Ct. 746, 754 (2014).

         General jurisdiction allows a court to hear "any and all claims" against a defendant. Goodyear Dunlop Tires Operations, S.A. v. Brown, 564 U.S. 915, 919 (2011). In the case of a defendant corporation, the Due Process Clause permits a court to exercise general jurisdiction only when the defendant's "affiliations with the State are so continuous and systematic as to render them essentially at home in the forum State." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). "The place of incorporation and principal place of business" are the "paradigm bases for general jurisdiction" over a corporation. Daimler, 134 S.Ct. at 760 (alteration and internal quotation marks omitted).

         "Specific jurisdiction, on the other hand, depends on an affiliation between the forum and the underlying controversy, principally, activity or an occurrence that takes place in the forum State and is therefore subject to the State's regulation." Goodyear, 564 U.S. at 919 (alteration and internal quotation marks omitted). Its exercise is "confined to adjudication of issues deriving from, or connected with, the very controversy that establishes jurisdiction." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). "The inquiry whether a forum State may assert specific jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant focuses on the relationship among the defendant, the forum, and the litigation." Walden v. Fiore, 134 S.Ct. 1115, 1121 (2014) (quoting Keeton v. Hustler Magazine, Inc., 465 U.S. 770, 775 (1984)) (internal quotation marks omitted). As the Supreme Court has noted, before a court may exercise specific jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant, "the defendant's suit-related conduct must create a substantial connection with the forum State." /of.; see also Burger King Corp. v. Rudzewicz, 471 U.S. 462, 475 (1985) (emphasis added).

         The Eighth Circuit has crafted a five-part test to help district courts determine whether a defendant has sufficient minimum contacts with the forum: (i) the nature and quality of contacts with the forum state; (ii) the quantity of such contacts; (iii) the relation of the cause of action to the contacts; (iv) the interest of the forum state in providing a forum for its residents; and (v) the convenience of the parties. Land-O-Nod Co. v. Bassett Furniture Indus., Inc., 708 F.2d 1338, 1340 (8th Cir. 1983). The last two factors are of secondary importance, id., and the third factor applies only in the specific jurisdiction context. See Wilcosky v. Swift Trans. Corp., 2008 WL 2562959, at *2 (W.D. Ark. June 24, 2008); see also Digi-Tel Holdings, 89 F.3d 519, 522 n.4 ("This third factor distinguishes whether the jurisdiction is specific or general.").

         III. ...

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