Be Careful Whom You “Tag”: Social Media Use Might Subject You to Suit in Another State
by Michael B. Kent, Jr.
Can the use of social media from a computer in one state expose you to a lawsuit in another state? According to a federal appeals court, the answer is “yes,” at least under certain circumstances. In Johnson v. Griffin, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that self-described “D-List” celebrity Kathy Griffin subjected herself to suit in Tennessee by “tagging” a Tennessee company in a tweet that accused the company’s CEO of homophobic behavior. The case provides another example of the legal risks associated with digital communications.
The case arose from an exchange between the CEO and some teenagers at a restaurant in Franklin, Tennessee. While the CEO was seated for dinner, a group of “boisterous” teens began taking prom pictures nearby. When the CEO asked the group’s chaperone to settle them down, one of the teens—a male wearing a red prom dress—confronted the CEO, who responded by telling the teen that he “look[ed] like an idiot.” Another teen filmed the interaction and subsequently posted the video to social media. Griffin then retweeted the video to her two million followers, identifying the CEO by name, title, and location. In addition, Griffin “tagged” the CEO’s Tennessee-based employer, which resulted in the message going directly to the company’s social media account and allowed other social media users to link to the company’s profile in their responses. After mounting social media pressure, complaints from its customers, and additional tweets by Griffin, the company fired the CEO. Thereafter, the CEO sued Griffin in a federal court located in Tennessee, alleging that she tortiously interfered with his employment relationship.
Griffin sought dismissal of the suit, arguing that she could not be sued in Tennessee because she lacked “minimum contacts” with that state. Under Supreme Court precedent, “minimum contacts” serve as a constitutional prerequisite to a court’s jurisdiction. Without such contacts, a court has no authority to adjudicate claims or enter judgments against a person. In short, Griffin asserted that her tweets, sent from a state other than Tennessee, provided no basis for a court located within Tennessee to hear the claims against her.
The court disagreed. Noting that jurisdiction can be established by “case-related contacts” in addition to generic connections, the court concluded that Griffin intentionally cultivated contacts with Tennessee via the tweets themselves. Not only did her tweets concern actions taken in Tennessee (the altercation with the teens) by a Tennessee resident (the CEO), she also intended the “brunt of the harm” to “befall [the CEO] in Tennessee” by urging her followers to call for his termination by his Tennessee employer. In the court’s view, these actions “plainly affected Tennessee,” and “they had real-world consequences for Tennessee” by depriving the CEO of his livelihood and costing the company its leader and customers.
Any doubt over the sufficiency of Griffin’s contacts with Tennessee was put to rest, however, by her “tagging” the company in her initial message. By doing so, she “directly communicated with the company’s decision-makers about firing” the CEO, which the court found analogous to sending a letter or making a telephone call. Griffin thus intentionally sent her messages into Tennessee, calling for the recipient of those messages to take a specific action within that state. That the tweets simultaneously went into every other state did not “inoculate [Griffin] from personal jurisdiction” within the state she purposefully targeted.
By focusing on the particulars of Griffin’s messages in light of the allegations against her, the court made clear that context matters. Not every online action will establish the requisite “minimum contacts” with another state. But the ruling serves as a reminder that social media use and other online activity can have wide-ranging consequences and trigger unforeseen legal repercussions.
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