Kuykendall v. Amazon Studios LLC

Decision Date18 March 2022
Docket NumberCivil Action 5:20-CV-219
PartiesJAMES KUYKENDALL, Plaintiff, v. AMAZON STUDIOS LLC et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Texas
ORDER

Marina Garcia Marmolejo, United States District Judge.

Defendants IPC Television, Tiller Russell, and Hector Berrellez (the Moving Defendants'”)[1] have filed a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction or, in the alternative, to transfer venue (Dkt. No. 38). Having considered the relevant filings and applicable law, the motion (Dkt. No. 38) is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. While the Court lacks personal jurisdiction over the Moving Defendants, it declines to dismiss the case under Rule 12(b)(2). Instead, the Court will transfer the claims against the Moving Defendants to the Central District of California, Los Angeles Division.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff James Kuykendall is a Texas resident and former agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) (Dkt. No 1 at 8).[2] His lawsuit concerns a streaming television documentary series called The Last Narc (“the Show”), which explores the kidnapping and murder of DEA Agent Enrique Camarena (id. at 2). The Show is available on Amazon.com, Inc.'s digital streaming service, Prime Video (id. at 7).

Essentially, Plaintiff takes issue with his portrayal in the Show. According to Plaintiff, only the Guadalajara Cartel (“the Cartel”) kidnapped and killed Agent Camarena (id. at 1). But according to the Show, Plaintiff, other American officials, and the Cartel coordinated Agent Camarena's murder, and Plaintiff “deliberately sabotaged” the criminal trial that ensued (id. at 2-3). The Show claims Agent Camarena threatened to expose a secret, transnational, deep-state conspiracy (id. at 2). Supposedly, the federal government and the Cartel formed a pact to traffic drugs into the United States and use some of the proceeds to fund Nicaraguan Contras (id.). To thwart Agent Camarena's potential revelation, the Show avers Plaintiff and the Cartel planned Agent Camarena's abduction, Plaintiff aided and abetted the execution of the plan, and Plaintiff lied during the subsequent murder trial (id. at 3). The Show also claims that Plaintiff received bribes from the Cartel (id.). In response to his portrayal in the Show, Plaintiff filed this lawsuit (id.).

At this juncture, only four defendants remain: IPC Television, LLC (“IPC”), Tiller Russell, Hector Berrellez, and Amazon Studios, LLC (Amazon Studios) (id. at 1). Of the four defendants, the first three-the Moving Defendants-contest personal jurisdiction (Dkt. No. 38). IPC is a production studio and media company, which has its principal place of business in California and is incorporated in Delaware (Dkt. No. 38-1 at 11). IPC co-produced the Show (Dkt. No. 1 at 8). Russell is a New Mexico resident who developed, co-executive produced, and directed the Show (id.). Berrellez is a California resident and former DEA agent who was interviewed extensively for, and appears in, the Show (id. at 7; Dkt. No. 104 at 40). Amazon Studios is a TV production and distribution company with its principal place of business in California (Dkt. No. 1 at 7). It is a subsidiary of Amazon.com, Inc., and it produced, published, and distributed the Show through Prime Video (id.).

Plaintiff asserts four claims in this diversity action: defamation per se, defamation per quod, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violation of Plaintiff's right of publicity (Dkt. No. 1 at 36-41). The Moving Defendants believe this Court lacks personal jurisdiction over them and move for dismissal on this basis (Dkt. No. 38). In the alternative, the Moving Defendants request that this matter be transferred to the Central District of California, Los Angeles Division, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a) (id.). Plaintiff counters that this Court has specific personal jurisdiction over the Moving Defendants and a transfer is not warranted (Dkt. No. 53).

II. LEGAL STANDARD

When personal jurisdiction is challenged, the burden of establishing jurisdiction falls on the plaintiff. Revell v. Lidov, 317 F.3d 467, 469 (5th Cir. 2002). However, the plaintiff need only present prima facie evidence to meet this burden. Id. We must accept the plaintiff's uncontroverted allegations, and resolve in his favor all conflicts between the facts contained in the parties' affidavits and other documentation.” Id. (cleaned up) (quoting Alpine View Co. Ltd. v. Atlas Copco AB, 205 F.3d 208, 215 (5th Cir. 2000)). However, a court need not credit conclusory allegations. Panda Brandywine Corp. v. Potomac Elec. Power Co., 253 F.3d 865, 869 (5th Cir. 2001). “In considering a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction a district court may consider ‘affidavits, interrogatories, depositions, oral testimony, or any combination of the recognized methods of discovery.' Revell, 317 F.3d at 469 (quoting Stuart v. Spademan, 772 F.2d 1185, 1192 (5th Cir. 1985)).

In a diversity action, a district court may exercise personal jurisdiction over a non-forum defendant if (1) the long-arm statute of the forum state creates personal jurisdiction over the defendant; and (2) the exercise of personal jurisdiction is consistent with the due process guarantees of the United States Constitution.” Id. Because Texas' long-arm statute allows for personal jurisdiction up to the constitutional limit, a court's analysis merges into a single due process inquiry. Clemens v. McNamee, 615 F.3d 374, 378 (5th Cir. 2010).

The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment allows a court to exercise personal jurisdiction over a non-forum defendant when (1) that defendant has purposefully availed himself of the benefits and protections of the forum state by establishing minimum contacts with the forum state and (2) the exercise of jurisdiction over that defendant does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.” Id. Minimum contacts can give rise to either general or specific jurisdiction. Id.

“General jurisdiction exists when a defendant's contacts with the forum state are unrelated to the cause of action but are continuous and systematic.” Revell, 317 F.3d at 470 (cleaned up) (quoting Mink v. AAAA Dev. LLC, 190 F.3d 333, 336 (5th Cir. 1999)). “A state court may exercise general jurisdiction only when a defendant is ‘essentially at home' in the State.” Ford Motor Co. v. Montana Eighth Jud. Dist. Ct., 141 S.Ct. 1017, 1024 (2021) (quoting Goodyear Dunlop Tires Operations, S.A. v. Brown, 564 U.S. 915, 919 (2011)). Paradigmatically, an individual is “at home” in his or her place of domicile, and a corporation is “at home” in its place of incorporation and principal place of business. Id.

The minimum contacts needed for specific jurisdiction exist when a defendant “purposefully avail[s] itself of the privilege of conducting activities in the forum State” and when the plaintiff's claim relates to or arises out of those purposeful contacts. Johnson v. TheHuffingtonPost.com, Inc., 21 F.4th 314, 317 (5th Cir. 2021) (quoting Ford Motor Co., 141 S.Ct. at 1024). Thus, to determine whether specific jurisdiction exists, a court looks only to “the contact out of which the cause of action arises.” Revell, 317 F.3d at 472. Further, [e]ach defendant's contacts with the forum State must be assessed individually.” Calder v. Jones, 465 U.S. 783, 790 (1984). Due process limits on specific jurisdiction “protect the liberty of the nonresident defendant-not the convenience of plaintiffs or third parties.” Walden v. Fiore, 571 U.S. 277, 284 (2014). It is therefore “insufficient to rely on a defendant's ‘random, fortuitous, or attenuated contacts' or on the ‘unilateral activity' of a plaintiff....A forum State's exercise of jurisdiction over an out-of-state intentional tortfeasor must be based on intentional conduct by the defendant that creates the necessary contacts with the forum.” Id. at 286 (quoting Burger King Corp. v. Rudzewicz, 471 U.S. 462, 475 (1985)).

If a court finds it lacks personal jurisdiction, it may either dismiss the action pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(2) or transfer the action. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1406(a), 1631; Herman v. Cataphora, Inc., 730 F.3d 460, 466 (5th Cir. 2013); Franco v. Mabe Trucking Co., Inc., 3 F.4th 788, 795 (5th Cir. 2021). In such a case, a court shall transfer the action to any court “in which the action or appeal could have been brought at the time it was filed or noticed, ” so long as the court finds it is within the interest of justice to do so. 28 U.S.C. § 1631.

III. ANALYSIS
A. Minimum Contacts: General Personal Jurisdiction

Plaintiff has not asserted the Moving Defendants are subject to general personal jurisdiction in this Court (see Dkt. Nos. 53, 104). Because Plaintiff bears the burden of making a prima facie case for personal jurisdiction, the general jurisdiction issue is waived. Nonetheless, even if the issue had not been waived, general jurisdiction is lacking. The Moving Defendants have shown they are not “at home” in Texas, do not own property or assets in Texas, and do not conduct any regular business in Texas (Dkt. No. 38-1 at 13-16).

B. Minimum Contacts: Specific Personal Jurisdiction

Typically for a defamation or libel claim, courts analyze specific personal jurisdiction using the tests articulated by the Supreme Court in Calder v. Jones, 465 U.S. 783 (1984) and Keeton v. Hustler Magazine, Inc., 465 U.S. 770 (1984). The Calder test assesses whether an author or publisher of defamatory content has aimed the offending content towards a state, knowing that its tortious effects will be felt there. Fielding v. Hubert Burda Media, Inc., 415 F.3d 419, 425 (5th Cir. 2005). The Keeton test assesses whether a publisher or distributor of defamatory...

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