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Ribbeck v. Negroni

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

December 18, 2019


          Pacold District Court Judge [1]



         Plaintiff, Manuel Von Ribbeck, filed this defamation and interference with prospective contractual relations lawsuit against defendant, Christine Negroni, in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois. The case was subsequently removed to federal court (doc. #1). After plaintiff filed a second amended complaint ("SAC") (doc. # 24), defendant moved to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(2) and 12(b)(6), arguing that no general jurisdiction or specific jurisdiction exists over her and that the SAC fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted (doc. ## 29, 34). Defendant submitted her affidavit in support of the motion to dismiss based on lack of personal jurisdiction (doc. # 34-5: Negroni Aff).

         Prior to responding to the motion to dismiss, plaintiff sought leave of court to conduct jurisdictional discovery. After a meet and confer between the parties, Judge Blakey permitted jurisdictional discovery in the form of a two-hour deposition of Ms. Negroni (doc. #35: Order 5/21/19; doc. # 40: Tr. 5/21/19). Ms. Negroni's deposition took place on July 11, 2019 (doc. # 43-2: Negroni Dep.). At a status hearing before Judge Blakey on July 17, 2019, the parties informed the Court that Ms. Negroni's deposition took place, that there were objections and instructions not to answer at the deposition, and that plaintiff served document requests seeking what he asserted was jurisdictional discovery (doc. # 45: Tr. 7/17/19). The district court admonished the parties to meet and confer regarding the "discovery requests" and stated that if they were related to the jurisdictional issue, the district court did not "have any problem with them" (Id.). The district court also set a briefing schedule on any motion to compel deposition answers or motion to quash discovery requests in the event the parties could not work out their disputes (doc. #41: Order 7/17/19).

         The subsequent meet and confer did not resolve the parties' discovery disputes. Pending before this Court are two discovery motions: (1) plaintiffs motion to compel answers to deposition questions and memorandum in support (doc. #51: Motion to Compel; doc. # 53: Memorandum in support of Motion to Compel ("PL Memo.")) and (2) defendant's motion to quash the notice to produce and memorandum in support (doc. # 42: Motion to Quash; doc. # 43: Memorandum in support of Motion to Quash ("Def. Memo.")). Defendant filed a response to the motion to compel (doc. # 57: Response to Motion to Compel ("Def. Resp.")) and plaintiff filed a response to the motion to quash (doc. #55: Response to Motion to Quash ("PI. Resp.")). For the following reasons we grant in part and deny in part the motion to compel and we grant without prejudice the motion to quash.


         We drew the following factual background from the SAC and Ms. Negroni's affidavit in support of her motion to dismiss. Mr. von Ribbeck is an attorney who is licensed to practice law in Illinois and concentrates his law practice in aviation litigation (SAC ¶¶ 2, 3). Mr. von Ribbeck currently represents families who lost relatives in the Lion Air Flight 610 crash that occurred in Indonesia on October 29, 2018 (Id. ¶ 4). Ms. Negroni is a blogger who specializes in aviation and travel writing (SAC ¶¶ 5, 6). At issue in this case is a blog post entitled "Lion Air Lawyer Accused of Sexual Assault in 2010" (the "Post") that Ms. Negroni published on December 17, 2018 (doc. # 24-1: Ex. 1 to SAC). Ms. Negroni is a Connecticut resident and has lived and worked there since 1993 (doc. # 34-5: Negroni Aff. ¶ 3).

         According to the assertions in her affidavit, Ms. Negroni does not own or rent real estate in Illinois and she has not resided in Illinois since 1993 (Negroni Aff. ¶ 4). Since that time, she has only occasionally passed through O'Hare International Airport en route to other destinations, and she spent one three-day family vacation in Illinois (Id. ¶ 5). Ms. Negroni states that she does not conduct business in Illinois (Negroni Aff. ¶ 6). Rather, she conducts her research and writing in Connecticut, including the calling and emailing of sources for the Post (Id. ¶ 7). Ms. Negroni does not specifically market her blog, and did not specifically market the Post, in Illinois and does not target Illinois residents (Id. ¶ 9). She tweeted regarding the Post on December 17 and 18, 2018 and included hashtags for Chicago and Jason Meisner, a Chicago Tribune reporter, in those tweets because a Lion Air case was filed in Chicago and Mr. Meisner was "working" the story (Id. ¶¶ 10, 11).


         Ms. Negroni was deposed on July 11, 2019 in Connecticut and was represented by counsel. After certain questions were asked of Ms. Negroni, her attorney "lodge[d] a continuing objection to questions that go to general jurisdiction," that were not "suit related" and invoked the Connecticut Reporter's Privilege[3] thus instructing Ms. Negroni not to answer numerous questions based on one or more of those objections (doc. # 43-2: Negroni Dep. at 9).[4] After that deposition, plaintiff served a document request on defendant seeking information he claims is relevant to personal jurisdiction.


         Plaintiffs motion to compel argues that Ms. Negroni was required to answer those questions she refused to answer, claiming they address her contacts with the state of Illinois. Defendant claims the questions were improper because they concerned general jurisdiction and the deposition was limited to questions regarding specific jurisdiction, were not suit-related, or were protected pursuant to the reporter's privilege. Defendant's overlapping motion to quash likewise places in issue whether plaintiff is entitled to discovery regarding a theory of general jurisdiction and whether certain information he seeks is privileged. We address each motion in turn, starting with plaintiffs motion to compel.


         When addressing a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(2), a court has both the discretion to allow jurisdictional discovery and the authority to prescribe its limits. Duracell U.S. Operations, Inc. v. JRS Ventures, Inc., No. 17 C 3166, 2018 WL 704686, *1 (N.D. 111. Feb. 5, 2018) (collecting cases). An instruction not to answer a deposition question is governed by Federal Rule Civil Procedure 30(c)(2): "A person may instruct a deponent not to answer only when necessary to preserve a privilege, to enforce a limitation ordered by the court, or to present a motion under Rule 30(d)(3)." A lawyer may not instruct a witness not to answer, and a witness may not decline to answer a question, on any other basis. Redwood v. Dobson, 476 F.3d 462, 467-68 (7th Cir. 2007).

         Personal jurisdiction can be established by demonstrating either general jurisdiction or specific jurisdiction. General jurisdiction exists when a party's contact with the forum state is "continuous and systematic." Brook v. McCormley, 873 F.3d 549, 552 (7th Cir. 2017). "Specific jurisdiction requires a defendant's contacts with the forum State to be directly related to the conduct pertaining to the claims asserted" and the focus of the inquiry is on "the relationship among the defendant, the forum, and the litigation." Id. (citations omitted). Unless Ms. Negroni can show that the district judge barred any inquiry into general jurisdiction, she was required to answer questions at her deposition on that theory of jurisdiction. Defendant has failed to show that the district judge limited jurisdictional discovery to an inquiry into specific jurisdiction.

         At the May 21st status hearing, the district judge permitted "jurisdictional discovery" in the form of a two-hour deposition of Ms. Negroni (doc. # 35: Order 5/21/19; doc. # 40: Tr. 5/21/19 at 2, 3, 6, 7, 8). At no point during the status hearing did either party or the district judge utter the words general or specific jurisdiction; rather, all that was discussed was "jurisdictional discovery." Additionally, in explaining his preference for a deposition instead of interrogatories to conduct the jurisdictional discovery at issue, plaintiff argued that a deposition would be more efficient to ask Ms. Negroni about the "stuff she's done for the Chicago Tribune, her not making substantial income, and if she really "talks to people at Boeing on the phone" (Tr. 5/21/19 at 5). These types of questions can fall under the "general" category of jurisdiction and are some of the same topics to which defendant objected at the deposition.

         Moreover, defendant did not seek a protective order to limit her deposition to topics related solely to specific jurisdiction, which was a course she could have pursued under Rule 30(c)(2). Rather, defendant now argues that plaintiff waived any assertion of general jurisdiction because plaintiff did not allege it in the SAC. Defendant relies on RAR, Inc. v. Turner Diesel, Ltd, 107 F.3d 1272, 1277 (7th Cir. 1997), for its finding that because the plaintiff never alleged defendant had "systematic contacts with Illinois," the plaintiff waived any general jurisdiction argument (Def. Resp. at 2, 6).

         We find no waiver here. "A plaintiff need not specifically allege facts supporting jurisdiction in her complaint." Winston v. Martinair, Inc., No. 06 C 5130, 2007 WL 684113, *3 (N.D. 111. Feb. 26, 2007). Plaintiffs SAC alleges in part that jurisdiction over Ms. Negroni is proper in Illinois because Ms. Negroni "otherwise engage[ed] in business in this State" (SAC ¶ 25). The SAC also mentions the Chicago Tribune article Ms. Negroni authored in April 2017 and her work with other journalists in Chicago investigating plaintiff (SAC ¶¶ 21-23).

         Defendant's motion to dismiss discussed both general and specific jurisdiction. Specifically, Ms. Negroni argued that she is not subject to the general jurisdiction of the Court because she does not have "continuous and systematic" contact with Illinois (doc. # 34: Memo. In Support of Motion to Dismiss at 8). Her affidavit in support also mentioned a freelance article she wrote two years ago for the Chicago Tribune, her three-day family visit to Illinois three years ago, and certain hashtags for Chicago and Mr. Meisner that she used in her tweets on December 17 and 18, 2018 about the Post (Negroni Aff. ¶¶ 4, 5, 10, 11). "[W]here a party injects an issue into a case, there can be no legitimate objection to the opponent being able to take appropriate discovery to ascertain the truth of ...

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