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Ultimate Outdoor Movies, LLC v. Funflicks, LLC

United States District Court, D. Maryland

January 31, 2019

FUNFLICKS, LLC, et al., Defendants.


          Stephanie A. Gallagher United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiffs Ultimate Outdoor Movies, LLC and Laura Landers (“Plaintiffs”) filed suit against Defendants Charles Hunter, Matthew Dias, and FunFlicks Audiovisuals (collectively “the California Defendants”); Todd Severn and FunFlicks, LLC (collectively, “the Severn Defendants”); and James Gaither and NATJAY, LLC (collectively, “the Gaither Defendants”). ECF 1. Plaintiffs allege fraud; aiding and abetting; breach of contract; violations of the Maryland Uniform Trade Secrets Act, Md. Code Ann., Com. Law § 11-1201 et seq., and the Federal Trade Secrets Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1836; defamation; intentional interference with contract; violations of the Federal Wiretap Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2511, and the Texas Wiretap Act, Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. §123.001 et seq.; violations of the Federal Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1125(a)(1)(A)-(B); unfair competition; intentional interference with economic relations; and civil conspiracy. ECF 21. Presently pending is the California Defendants' Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Personal Jurisdiction and Failure to State a Claim.[1] ECF 26. Plaintiffs opposed the Defendants' Motion on December 5, 2018, and Defendants filed a Reply. ECF 32, 45. On December 13, 2018, Plaintiffs filed a Supplemental Opposition to Defendants' Motion, ECF 40, which Defendants moved to strike as untimely, and in the alternative, requested that the Court accept Defendants' additional pages of argument in response to Plaintiffs' supplemental arguments, ECF 49. Plaintiffs filed a Motion for Leave to File a Supplemental Opposition on December 27, 2018, ECF 50, and an Opposition to Defendants' Motion to Strike, ECF 54. Defendants opposed Plaintiffs' Motion, ECF 60, and Plaintiffs did not file a Reply.

         This Court held a hearing on Defendants' Motion on January 23, 2019. ECF 86. For the reasons stated below, I shall deny Defendants' Motion to Strike Plaintiffs' Supplemental Opposition to Defendants' Motion, ECF 49, grant Plaintiffs' Motion for Leave to File a Supplemental Opposition, ECF 50, and defer Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, ECF 26, pending jurisdictional discovery, which shall be conducted in accordance with the accompanying Order.


         Individual Defendants Matthew Dias (“Dias”) and Charles Hunter (“Hunter”) are residents of California. ECF 26-5 ¶ 7, 26-6 ¶ 8. Defendant FunFlicks Audiovisuals (“FF-AV”), a company that provides outdoor movie entertainment, was incorporated in California and maintains its principal place of business in Bakersfield, California. ECF 26-5 ¶¶ 3-4, 26-6 ¶¶ 4-5. Dias is the Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of FF-AV, ECF 26-5 ¶ 2, and Hunter is the Chief Executive Officer of FF-AV, ECF 26-6 ¶ 3. FF-AV does not have an office or any employees in Maryland, does not own property in Maryland, does not have a resident agent for service of process in Maryland, does not have a mailing address or telephone number in Maryland, and does not maintain a bank account in Maryland. ECF 26-5 ¶¶ 5-6, 26-6 ¶¶ 6-7. Dias and Hunter have never lived in Maryland, have never owned, rented or leased any real or personal property in Maryland, have never worked or attended school in Maryland, have never paid taxes in Maryland or maintained any type of bank or securities account in the state, and have never traveled to Maryland to participate in any judicial proceedings or arbitrations. ECF 26-5 ¶¶ 8-15, 26-6 ¶¶ 9-16.

         Plaintiff Ultimate Outdoor Movies, LLC (“UOM”) is a Texas-based outdoor inflatable movie screen rental company. ECF 21 ¶ 2. Plaintiff Laura Landers (“Ms. Landers”), a Texas resident, is the full owner of UOM. Id. ¶ 1, 56 n.2. Ms. Landers's husband, Darrell Landers (“Mr. Landers”) is Chief Executive Officer and Vice President of UOM. Id. ¶ 56 n.2. Mr. Landers is not a party to this action. Defendant Todd Severn (“Severn”) is the original owner and creator of the outdoor inflatable movie screen rental brand known as “FunFlicks.” Id. ¶ 48. Severn operated the business as FunFlicks, LLC (“FF-Severn”) in Maryland, from approximately 2002 to January 1, 2013. Id. During this time, FF-Severn granted non-exclusive licenses to individuals and small business owners, including Mr. Landers in or about April of 2008, for the purpose of operating a business under the FunFlicks name. Id. ¶¶ 49, 55. When UOM was formed in 2010 under the name “Fun Flicks Outdoor Movies of Texas, Inc., ” Mr. Landers transferred his FunFlicks licenses to UOM. Id. ¶ 2, 56. In or about December of 2012, Mr. Landers incorporated a separate entity in Texas, “FunFlicks, Inc.” (“FF-Landers”). Id. ¶ 58. In or about January of 2013, FF-Landers bought the rights to the FunFlicks brand from FF-Severn through an asset purchase agreement (“2013 APA”). Id. ¶¶ 15, 58-61.

         In or about the fall of 2017, FF-Landers withheld payment to FF-Severn, and the parties began negotiating a restructuring of the 2013 APA. Id. ¶¶ 96-125. In or about December of 2017, FF-Severn approached the California Defendants to replace FF-Landers as the buyer of the FunFlicks brand. Id. ¶¶ 115-125. The California Defendants and FF-Severn executed an asset purchase agreement (“2017 APA”), selling the assets covered under the 2013 APA to the California Defendants. Id. ¶ 116. The 2017 APA is governed by Maryland law. Id. ¶¶ 118, 119, Exh. 4. Plaintiffs allege the 2013 APA did not cover the after-acquired property of FF-Landers and, when FF-Landers learned of the 2017 APA, FF-Landers and FF-Severn began a second round of negotiations to resolve their remaining disputes over the 2013 APA. Id. ¶¶ 129, 130, 139. During negotiations, FF-Severn had control of the URL, held in escrow on a separate server, pursuant to the 2013 APA. Id. ¶ 137(1) n.4.

         While negotiations were ongoing between FF-Landers and FF-Severn, Plaintiffs allege that the California Defendants contacted Ms. Landers to discuss UOM's continuation of its license under the FunFlicks brand. Id. ¶ 140. They also allege that, on or about February 5, 2018, the California Defendants executed a new licensing agreement with Defendants James Gaither (“Gaither”) and his Maryland-based company, NATJAY, LLC, for Gaither to operate as a FunFlicks licensee in the Maryland territory. Id. ¶ 182. On or about February 27, 2018, Plaintiffs allege that Gaither, on behalf of all of the Defendants, sent an email to all FunFlicks customers from UOM's mid-Atlantic client list, warning clients, among other things, that a “Texas business has been marketing outdoor movies using the FunFlicks name without authorization.” Id. ¶ 212. On March 3, 2018, FF-Landers and FF-Severn executed a Release and Settlement Agreement, settling their dispute over the 2013 APA. Id. ¶¶ 245-255. On or about March 1, 2018, FF-Severn disconnected the FunFlicks URL link to FF-Landers's server and redirected the domain to the California Defendants. Id. ¶¶ 259, 260. Plaintiffs allege that the California Defendants “re-create[d] related directional protocols on its own separate e-mail/web server” for emails sent to “” Id. ¶¶ 260-262.

         On or about April 27, 2018, a former UOM client in Maryland, “Megan, ” received an email from Gaither in response to Megan's inquiry sent to and addressed to “Kenneth, ” a UOM employee. Id. ¶ 274. After receiving Gaither's response, Megan booked her event with Gaither and NATJAY, LLC, and not with UOM. Id. ¶¶ 275, 276, Exh. 16. On or about June 14, 2018, Mr. Landers sent an email to “, ” posing as a client seeking FunFlicks services for events in Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Texas. Id. ¶¶ 269, 270, Exh. 14. Mr. Landers never received the email he sent to his former address, but the fictitious client received a response from Severn. Id. ¶ 271.


         The California Defendants' Motion to Dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(2) challenges this Court's personal jurisdiction over them. Under Rule 12(b)(2), the burden is “on the plaintiff ultimately to prove the existence of a ground for jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence.” Combs v. Bakker, 886 F.2d 673, 676 (4th Cir. 1989); see Universal Leather, LLC v. Koro AR, S.A., 773 F.3d 553, 558 (4th Cir. 2014); Carefirst of Md., Inc. v. Carefirst Pregnancy Ctrs., Inc., 334 F.3d 390, 396 (4th Cir. 2003) (citing Mylan Labs., Inc. v. Akzo, N.V., 2 F.3d 56, 59-60 (4th Cir. 1993)). When “a district court decides a pretrial personal jurisdiction motion without conducting an evidentiary hearing, the plaintiff need only make a prima facie showing of personal jurisdiction.” Carefirst of Md., 334 F.3d at 396 (citing Combs, 886 F.2d at 676). To determine whether the plaintiff has met this burden, “the court must construe all relevant pleading allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, assume credibility, and draw the most favorable inferences for the existence of jurisdiction.” Combs, 886 F.2d at 676. The court need not “look solely to the plaintiff's proof in drawing” all reasonable inferences in plaintiff's favor, and may also look at the defendant's proffered proof and assertions regarding defendant's lack of contacts with the forum state. Mylan Labs., Inc., 2 F.3d at 62. “When the existing record is inadequate to support personal jurisdiction over a defendant, the plaintiff is entitled to jurisdictional discovery if it can demonstrate that such discovery would yield ‘additional facts' that would ‘assist the court in making the jurisdictional determination.'” FrenchPorte IP, LLC v. Martin Door Mfg., Inc., Civil Action No. TDC-14-0295, 2014 WL 4094265, at *5 (D. Md. Aug. 14, 2014) (first quoting Commissariat A L'Energie Atomique v. Chi Mei Optoelectronics Corp., 395 F.3d 1315, 1323 (Fed. Cir. 2005); and then citing Toys “R” Us, Inc. v. Step Two, S.A., 318 F.3d 446, 456 (Fed. Cir. 2003) (“[C]ourts are to assist the plaintiff by allowing jurisdictional discovery unless the plaintiff's claim is clearly frivolous.'”)).

         To exercise personal jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant, a court must determine that (1) the exercise of jurisdiction is authorized under the state's long-arm statute, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(k)(1)(A); and (2) the exercise of jurisdiction conforms to the Fourteenth Amendment's due process requirements. Carefirst of Md., 334 F.3d at 396. When interpreting the reach of Maryland's long-arm statute, a federal district court is bound by the interpretations of the Maryland Court of Appeals. See Carbone v. Deutsche Bank Nat'l Tr. Co., Civil Action No. RDB-15-1963, 2016 WL 4158354, at *5 (D. Md. Aug. 5, 2016); Snyder v. Hampton Indus., Inc., 521 F.Supp. 130, 135-36 (D. Md. 1981), aff'd, 758 F.2d 649 (4th Cir. 1985); see also Mylan Labs., 2 F.3d at 61 (citing Erie R.R. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 178 (1938)). Moreover, courts must address both prongs of the personal jurisdiction analysis, despite Maryland courts consistently holding that “the state's long-arm statute is coextensive with the limits of personal jurisdiction set out by the due process clause of the Constitution.” Bond v. Messerman, 391 Md. 706, 721, 895 A.2d 990, 999 (2006); see CSR, Ltd. v. Taylor, 411 Md. 457, 472, 984 A.2d 492, 501 (2009) (noting that the personal jurisdiction analysis “entails dual considerations”); Carefirst of Md., 334 F.3d at 396.

         Under the first prong, the plaintiff must identify a provision in the Maryland long-arm statute that authorizes jurisdiction. Ottenheimer Publishers, Inc. v. Playmore, Inc., 158 F.Supp.2d 649, 652 (D. Md. 2001). Under the second prong, “due process requires only that . . . a defendant . . . have certain minimum contacts . . . such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend ‘traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.'” Int'l Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 316 (1945) (quoting Milleken v. Meyer, 311 U.S. 457, 463 (1940)). This “minimum contacts” analysis depends on the number and relationship of a defendant's contacts to the forum state, and whether the present cause of action stems from the defendant's alleged acts or omissions in the forum state. Id. at 316-19.

         Finally, a court may exercise two types of personal jurisdiction, “general” or “specific.” Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California, San Francisco Cty., 137 S.Ct. 1773, 1780 (2017). “General” jurisdiction is a fairly limited concept, since it only arises where “the continuous corporate operations within a state [are] so substantial and of such a nature as to justify suit against [defendant] on causes of action arising from dealings entirely distinct from those activities.” Int'l Shoe, 326 U.S. at 318. “For an individual, the paradigm forum for the exercise of general jurisdiction is the individual's domicile; for a corporation, it is an equivalent place, one in which the corporation is fairly regarded as at home.” Goodyear Dunlop Tires Operations, S.A. v. Brown, 564 U.S. 915, 924 (2011). In the context of a corporation, the paradigm bases for general jurisdiction are “the place of incorporation and principal place of business.” Daimler AG v. Bauman, 571 U.S. 117, 137 (2014). The Daimler court clarified that while those paradigms are not necessarily the only bases for general jurisdiction, it would be ...

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