Be Careful What You Post: Personal Jurisdiction in Internet Defamation Lawsuits


By: Michael Kenney and Tara Sheldon

In today’s world, we have innumerable options to communicate and social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have become, for many, a large part of our lives.  While our modern digital life has increased social connectedness and removed barriers to communication, it has also led to increasing defamation claims that challenge the traditional notions of personal jurisdiction.         

In a recent case, Helali v. Legarde, the United States District Court for the District of Vermont addressed the test for specific personal jurisdiction and whether alleged defamatory statements about a Vermont resident by a Massachusetts resident in online posts, calls and e-mails exposed that Massachusetts resident to a Vermont lawsuit. 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6008, Case No. 2:21-cv-00141 (Jan. 11, 2022).  Because Vermont was the focal point of both the alleged tortious conduct and of the harm suffered, the Court held plaintiff established that Ms. Legarde had sufficient minimum contacts with Vermont for specific jurisdiction. The Court acknowledged that “simply posting on the internet may not be enough to show conduct was expressly aimed at Vermont” but went on to find that the Calder “effects test” was indeed met here because the defendant expressly aimed her tortious conduct at Vermont residents, because the reputation-based effects were felt by plaintiff in Vermont.    

In Helali v. Legarde, Plaintiff Christopher Helali, a Vermont resident, brought a defamation case against defendant Zipporah Legarde, a Massachusetts resident.  The two had previously dated, and after the relationship ended the plaintiff relocated to Vermont. The plaintiff alleged that starting in late 2018, the defendant “began engaging in threatening and abusive behavior towards [plaintiff] that escalated dramatically over time” and “embarked on a willful, malicious, relentless and vicious defamation campaign against him.” The alleged defamatory statements included multiple Twitter and Facebook posts where the defendant accused the plaintiff (among other things) of being a rapist, a thief, an anti-Semite, and that he had been dishonorably discharged from the military. The defendant also contacted at least six Vermonters with whom the plaintiff had professional dealings and made similar statements, while urging the recipients to cut off all ties with the plaintiff and not do business with him.   

The plaintiff brought a defamation suit in federal court. The defendant moved to dismiss the case for lack of subject matter and personal jurisdiction, arguing that “[m]ere posts on the internet” and “statements . . . made from outside of Vermont via email and telephone to residents in Vermont” cannot form the basis for personal jurisdiction and that plaintiff failed to allege Ms. Legarde’s conduct was “expressly aimed” at Vermont. The District Court denied the defendant’s motion. The Court found that the defendant had sufficient minimum contacts with Vermont to exercise specific jurisdiction consistent with the Due Process Clause.  As part of its minimum contacts analysis, the Court utilized the Calder “effects test” theory of personal jurisdiction, a framework often utilized in defamation cases which focuses on the in-state effects of a defendant’s out-of-state activity. Calder v. Jones, 465 U.S. 783. The Court also relied upon Walden v. Fiore, 571 U.S. 277 (2014), which discussed the Calder “effects test” and noted that “mere injury to a forum resident” is not a sufficient contact where the defendant has not “expressly aimed its conduct at the forum.”  

The Court noted that “[b]y directly contacting and circulating her online postings and other communications to Vermont residents, the alleged tort of defamation took place in Vermont.” Furthermore, the effects caused by Ms. Legarde’s alleged conduct (i.e., injury to plaintiff’s reputation amongst the Vermont public) connected Ms. Legarde’s conduct to the State of Vermont, not just the Vermont-based plaintiff.

While the Vermont District Court has provided additional guidance in terms of what contacts are sufficient to exercise specific jurisdiction for communications in the modern age, there is no bright-line rule and personal jurisdiction based on minimal contacts will need to be determined on a case-by-case basis. The attorneys of FMG are experienced in defending slander, defamation and libel cases and are here to help you.  

For more information on the topic, contact Michael Kenney or Tara Sheldon.