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Ciabattoni v. Teamsters Local 326

Superior Court of Delaware

March 28, 2017

Michael Ciabattoni
Teamsters Local 326, et al.

         Dear Counsel:

         This is the Court's ruling on Defendant Travis Eby ("Eby")'s Motion to Dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. After considering the parties' positions in the filings and at oral argument on the Motion, Eby's Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED for lack of personal jurisdiction.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Factual Background[1]

         Plaintiff Michael Ciabattoni ("Plaintiff) alleges that Defendants, Teamsters Local 326, its officers, and Eby, engaged in false light invasion of privacy (Count I), defamation of character (Count II), tortious interference with business relationship (Count III), intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count IV), breach of contract (Count V), and civil conspiracy to commit the foregoing counts (Count VI).[2] The suit arises out of a Facebook Page and associated posts wherein the Teamsters Local 326 officers ("Individual Teamsters Defendants"), in an alleged conspiracy with Eby, posted defamatory comments and disclosed confidential documents concerning Plaintiff to others who accessed the Facebook Page.[3] Plaintiff demands compensatory and punitive damages.

         The allegations stem from Plaintiffs "voluntary retirement" from Teamsters Local 326.[4] Plaintiff, a former Teamsters vice president, and the Individual Teamsters Defendants-officers/directors of Teamsters Local 326-entered into a confidential settlement agreement whereby Plaintiff would pay back allegedly embezzled funds in the amount of $7, 000 and "voluntarily resign" in exchange for Defendants dropping administrative charges against Plaintiff and recommending to State authorities that the parties had resolved the charges against Plaintiff.[5]

         After the Settlement Agreement, entered into in late 2012, a Delaware newspaper article profiled Plaintiffs avoidance of criminal charges related to this same conduct. Shortly before the newspaper article, Eby-a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania resident and FedEx Freight employee-created a Facebook Page entitled "Bring the Teamsters to FedEx Freight."[6] The Page was created with the purpose of promoting unionization efforts at FedEx Freight under the Teamsters' auspices.[7] The Facebook Page was publicly accessible by other Facebook users and members of the public alike in January 2015.[8]

         After the article surfaced and was posted on the Facebook Page, numerous comments were made by Facebook users who clearly had some connection to the unionization effort. These users posted messages expressing their considerable displeasure towards Plaintiff and the posts conveyed a desire to uncover more information about his alleged improprieties.[9]

         To that end, Eby, in addition to creating and/or administering the Facebook Page, allegedly posted two comments of particular note. The first, on January 7, 2015, stated: "Many more documents to come on this clown."[10] The second, on January 8, 2015, declared: "The grand finally [sic] of all bomb shells [sic] on this tool to be coming soon."[11] The posts are attributed to the Facebook Page and not any single author in particular. Notwithstanding the latter, Plaintiff asserted at oral argument that it was reasonable to infer that Eby posted them because he is the only identified creator/administrator of the Facebook Page.[12]

         Additionally, Plaintiff alleges that other Individual Teamsters Defendants, including signatories of the Settlement Agreement, allegedly posted confidential information regarding the Agreement on the Page. Of particular relevance to this Motion, however, are two documents that were posted to the Facebook Page: (1) Plaintiffs August 5, 2012 Delaware Family Court Protection from Abuse ("PFA") Order; and (2) an August 21, 2012 letter, sent from John J. Ryan, Sr. of the General Teamsters Local Union to Plaintiff accusing him of "wiretapping" the Local Union Hall.[13] These documents were allegedly sent to the Teamsters Local and posted by the Individual Teamsters Defendants to the Facebook Page, or sent to Eby for posting.

         Procedural Background

         Plaintiffs Second Amended Complaint was filed on November 28, 2016 after the Court granted Plaintiffs motion for leave to amend the original Complaint. Defendants subsequently answered the Second Amended Complaint and Defense counsel entered his appearance for Eby. Eby thereafter filed this Motion to Dismiss on January 13, 2017 on the basis lack of personal jurisdiction and Rule 12(b)(6). The Court has previously granted a similar motion to dismiss on personal jurisdiction grounds for Defendant Robert Taylor, decided on August 22, 2016.[14]

         Eby's opening brief was filed on January 23, 2017. Plaintiff filed his response on February 8, 2017. Eby filed a reply brief on February 17, 2017. Oral arguments on the Motion took place on March 8, 2017. The matter is now ripe for decision.[15]

         Contentions of the Parties

         Eby argues that: (1) Delaware's long-arm statute, 10 Del C. § 3104, does not provide for either specific or general jurisdiction over Eby; (2) even if it did, the exercise of jurisdiction over Eby would violate due process; and (3) Eby cannot be brought into Delaware under the conspiracy theory of personal jurisdiction because Plaintiff cannot meet the established five-part test for this theory without specific factual evidence of Eby's alleged involvement in a conspiracy.

         Plaintiff concedes the issue of specific jurisdiction in his response and places all his eggs in one basket: the conspiracy theory of personal jurisdiction. Arguing that the five-part test is met here, Plaintiff proceeds to halfheartedly assert that Eby could also be brought in under specific or general personal jurisdiction pursuant to 10 Del C. § 3104(c)(3)-(4) as an agent of the other Defendants, over whom the Court has personal jurisdiction.[16]

         Standard of Review

         On a motion to dismiss pursuant to Superior Court Civil Rule 12(b)(2) for lack of personal jurisdiction over a defendant, the plaintiff "bear[s] the burden to articulate a non-frivolous basis for this court's assertion of jurisdiction."[17] Although the factual record is read in the light most favorable to the plaintiff in ruling on the motion, "the plaintiff must plead specific facts and cannot rely on mere conclusory assertions."[18] "A court cannot grant a motion under Rule 12(b)(2) simply by accepting the well pleaded allegations of the complaint as true, because the pleader has no obligation to plead facts that show the amenability of the defendant to service of process."[19] The plaintiff can satisfy his or her burden on a Rule 12(b)(2) motion "by making a prima facie showing that jurisdiction is conferred by statute."[20]

         In making the determination of whether personal jurisdiction exists, the Court's duty is two-fold: "First, it must determine whether jurisdiction is appropriate under Delaware's long arm statute. And, second, it must evaluate whether asserting such jurisdiction would offend the Due Process Clause of the Constitution.[21]" Importantly, legal questions presented by a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction-such as "whether that connection constitutes 'doing business, ' whether it satisfies some aspect of a long-arm statute, or whether the assertion of personal jurisdiction conforms to conventional notions of fair play and substantial justice"-cannot ...

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