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Gehrls v. Gooch

May 7, 2010

CORRINE GEHRLS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MYRON GOOCH, KIRBY BUMPUS AND HARPO, INC., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wayne R. Andersen District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION and ORDER

This case is before the court on the motions of defendants Kirby Bumpus, Myron Gooch and Harpo Inc. to dismiss plaintiff's complaint in its entirety. For the reasons st forth below, Bumpus' motion to dismiss [18] is granted. Gooch's motion to dismiss [32] is denied, and Harpo's motion to dismiss [27] is granted in part and denied in part.

BACKGROUND

According to the complaint, plaintiff Corrine Gehrls was employed by Harpo which is owned by Oprah Winfrey. Plaintiff and defendant Gooch were employed as flight attendants on Ms. Winfrey's private plane. Plaintiff alleges that Gooch devised a scheme to have her and Harpo pilot Terry Pansing fired by reporting false allegations of "intimate behavior" between plaintiff and Pansing through use of Gooch's influence with Ms. Winfrey. Plaintiff further alleges that pursuant to Gooch's scheme to have her fired, Gooch approached defendant Kirby Bumpus to assist him in his scheme. Plaintiff alleges that Gooch and Bumpus agreed to make a false and defamatory report to Ms. Winfrey about plaintiff and Pansing having intimate contact outside the cockpit of Winfrey's private plane.

Plaintiff alleges that Gooch and Bumpus falsely reported to Ms. Winfrey and Harpo that on a June 14, 2009 flight, plaintiff and Pansing were seen engaging in inappropriate intimate behavior. Plaintiff denies that any such conduct ever occurred. After this alleged report, plaintiff alleges that she and Pansing were discharged. Plaintiff also alleges that a report was put in her personnel file citing the basis for her discharge with Harpo as the alleged inappropriate intimate conduct. Plaintiff contends that the false and defamatory report of alleged intimate behavior between plaintiff and Pansing to Ms. Winfrey ultimately were the basis for her discharge.

Plaintiff has filed a four-count complaint against defendants Bumpus, Gooch and Harpo. In Count I, plaintiff alleges a claim for defendant against Gooch and Bumpus, and Count II states a claim for defamation against Harpo. In Count III, plaintiff alleges a claim against Gooch for tortious interference with prospective business advantage, and Count IV asserts that Harpo is vicariously liable for Gooch's tortious interference with plaintiff's prospective economic advantage with Harpo. Defendants have filed motions to dismiss plaintiff's complaint in its entirety.

ANALYSIS

I. Defendant Bumpus' Motion to Dismiss

Bumpus has filed a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction pursuant to Federal Rule 12(b)(2). When personal jurisdiction is contested, "[t]he plaintiff has the burden of making a prima facie case for personal jurisdiction." Jackson v. Cal. Newspapers Partnership, 406 F. Supp. 2d 893, 895 (N.D. Ill. 2005). A federal court sitting in diversity has personal jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant only if an Illinois court would have jurisdiction. Id. at 895. As set forth in International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310 (1945), a court can exercise personal jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant only if the defendant has "certain minimum contacts with [the state] such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend 'traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.'" 326 U.S. at 316. The holding of International Shoe requires that the "defendant's conduct and connection with the forum are such that he should reasonably anticipate being haled into court there." Jackson, 406 F. Supp. 2d at 895 (quoting World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286, 297 (1980)).

Plaintiff has not alleged continuous and systematic contacts with the State of Illinois sufficient to render Bumpus subject to general jurisdiction. Therefore, the sole issue this court must resolve as to Bumpus' motion to dismiss is whether this court has specific jurisdiction over her. To establish specific jurisdiction, a plaintiff must establish that the "defendant's intentional tortious actions expressly aimed at the forum state cause harm to the plaintiff in the forum state and the defendant knows such harm is likely to be suffered." Richter v. INSTAR Enters. Int'l Inc. 594 F. supp. 2d 1000, 1010 (N.D. Ill. 2009). The mere allegation that a defendant has committed an intentional tort against the plaintiff does mean that the plaintiff may hale a defendant into court in the plaintiff's home state when the defendant otherwise has no contacts with that state. Wallace v. Herron, 778 F.2d 391, 394 (7th Cir. 1985). The alleged commission of an intentional tort without more does not confer jurisdiction over that defendant.

In this case, the circumstances surrounding the alleged statements made by Bumpus are insufficient to render her subject to personal jurisdiction in Illinois. There is no allegation that Bumpus explicitly directed her alleged statements to Illinois, which serves as the basis for plaintiff's complaint. Based on the allegations in plaintiff's complaint, Bumpus allegedly made a report regarding her observation of conduct between plaintiff and the pilot of a Harpo flight. This alleged report was made in South Africa. There are no allegations that Bumpus ever referenced Illinois or that she had any knowledge about where plaintiff lived or her employment with Harpo. Nothing can be derived from these facts to suggest that Bumpus "expressly aimed" her statements at the State of Illinois. Without more, the mere fact that a tort occurred in Illinois does subject Bumpus to personal jurisdiction in Illinois.

In addition, "[d]ue process requires that it be foreseeable that the defendant's conduct and connection with the forum State are such that [s]he should be reasonably anticipate being haled into court there." Wallace, 778 F.2d 394. However, there is nothing to suggest that Bumpus ever anticipated being haled into court in Illinois. Based on the allegations of the complaint, Bumpus reported her observations in South Africa and had no subsequent involvement with the chain of events that led to plaintiff's discharge. There is no indication, and it is not reasonable to assume, that Bumpus could have reasonably anticipated being haled into court in the State of Illinois -- a state in which she does not have minimum contacts. Therefore, defendant Kirby Bumpus' motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction [18] is granted.

II. Gooch's Motion to Dismiss

Defendant Myron Gooch has filed a motion to dismiss Counts I and III pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. In order to survive a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule 12(b)(6), "a complaint must contain sufficient factual material, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1940 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff ...


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