District Court Holds That Oregon Cannot Assert Personal Jurisdiction Over Alaska Lawyers


The case is MBJE, Inc. v. Barbara Norris, et al., No. 6:19-CV-00161 (D. Oregon, Eugene Division, January 23, 2020). The plaintiff is an Oregon corporation that filed a legal malpractice suit against attorneys who live and practice in Alaska. The underlying dispute concerned a probate case in the Alaska courts that the lawyers handled. When they were sued for legal malpractice in Oregon, the moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction.

The opinion summarizes the dispute:

“Plaintiff MBJE Inc. is an Oregon corporation. Plaintiff brings four legal malpractice claims against two Alaskan attorneys, Tonja Woelber and Barbara Norris, and their firms, Tonja Woelber, Attorney at Law, P.C.; Woelber & Passard, LLC; Law Office of Barbara A. Norris, LLC.[1] Plaintiff brings a legal malpractice claim, a breach of fiduciary duty claim (“BOFD”), and an indemnity claim against both defendants. Plaintiff also brings a breach of contract claim against Woelber.

Plaintiff was assigned the claims of Phillip Jones. Jones’ stepmother, Mary Buza Jones was a long-time resident of Alaska who died in Alaska. She left an estate (of real and personal property located in Alaska) that was probated in the Superior Court of Alaska. Jones called attorney Woelber in Alaska and asked her to represent him in the probate of his stepmother’s estate. Jones asked Woelber to have him appointed Personal Representative of that estate. She filed the probate action and successfully petitioned the court as requested.

As Personal Representative of his stepmother’s estate, Jones then contacted attorney Norris in Alaska and asked her to review a California settlement agreement involving the estate, which she did. Norris also, on Jones’ request, sent a letter to the Internal Revenue Service confirming that Jones was the Personal Representative of his late stepmother’s estate. Norris was known to Jones because Norris had represented Jones’ sister, who resided in Arizona, in a guardianship matter as to the siblings’ stepmother.

Woelber communicated with Jones by email, mail, and phone but never traveled to Oregon to meet with him. She sent invoices to an Oregon address. Norris communicated with Jones by email, fax, and telephone but never traveled to Oregon to meet with him. She sent invoices to a California address provided by Jones.

The two attorneys and their law firms are citizens of Alaska. Both defendants were and are licensed to practice law in Alaska. Neither attorney has ever been licensed to practice law in Oregon. Neither attorney has done business or advertised business in Oregon. Norris has been to Oregon for professional reasons two times. In 2015, she attended a deposition of an Oregon witness for an unrelated Alaska case scheduled by another counsel. And “many years ago,” on behalf of an Alaskan client, she came to Oregon to search for that client’s kidnapped children. Norris Decl. ¶ 5. Woelber has only been to Oregon as a tourist.

After plaintiff filed the present complaint, defendants moved to dismiss the claims for lack of personal jurisdiction, or in the alternative to transfer venue to the District of Alaska.”

The court concluded that there was no personal jurisdiction over the attorneys:

To establish specific jurisdiction for a tort claim, a plaintiff must show that a defendant purposely directed its activities at the forum state. Schwarzenegger, 374 F.3d at 804-05. Specifically, the plaintiff must show that a defendant (1) committed an intentional act (2) expressly aimed at the forum state (3) causing harm that the defendant knows is likely to be suffered in the forum state. Id.

Here, plaintiff asserts that defendants purposely directed activities at Oregon because (1) they provided legal services to Jones and advised him on the probate matter, and, (2) in receiving payment for these services, defendants “consummated a transaction” with Jones. Pl’s Resp. to Def. Mot. to Dismiss at 12-13.

But these claims are not based on intentional or purposeful acts. Plaintiff alleges malpractice and BOFD, which are claims of negligence. Plaintiff alleges not that defendants purposefully directed allegedly wrongful activities at Oregon but that they acted with “mere untargeted negligence.” Calder v. Jones, 465 U.S. 783, 789 (1984). Thus, as to the legal malpractice and BOFD claims, plaintiff fails to establish that defendants purposely directed their activities at Oregon. Thus, this Court cannot exercise specific personal jurisdiction over defendants with respect to plaintiff’s tort claims.

Comment: this result appears to be correct as the attorneys handled a case in Alaska, not Oregon, and would not have expected to be sued in Oregon.

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