ACLU Gets Jurisdictional Discovery from Michael Jackson Because of Disputed Facts

When is a litigant entitled to jurisdictional discovery? The Eleventh Circuit addressed this issue in an opinion published June 20, 2017, ACLU of Florida, Inc. v. City of Sarasota, 2017 WL 2636542, holding that, when the jurisdictional facts are genuinely in dispute and a party does not unduly delay in seeking discovery, the court abuses its discretion if it completely denies jurisdictional discovery.

The ACLU of Florida brought a mandamus petition in Florida state court against the City of Sarasota and Michael Jackson, a Florida law enforcement officer. The ACLU sought production of 34 applications authorizing cell phone tracking devices. The ACLU alleged Jackson created the applications in his capacity as a Florida law enforcement officer, making them subject to production under a Florida statute. But the United States intervened, asserting Jackson had created the applications as a “cross-sworn” Special Deputy U.S. Marshal, and the Florida statute, therefore, did not require production of the applications. The state trial court accepted the United States’ representation and dismissed the petition.

Before the ACLU could appeal, the United States removed the case to federal district court because of Jackson’s purported status as a federal officer. The ACLU moved to remand the case to state court and asked the district court for jurisdictional discovery to ascertain the capacity in which Jackson had created the applications. The discovery request was denied, but the district court did require Jackson to answer interrogatories from the court itself. The court concluded that it had subject matter jurisdiction based on Jackson’s interrogatory response that the U.S. Marshals Service had directed him to submit all of the applications. Jackson’s response only specifically addressed two applications (including one he had signed listing himself as a detective with the Sarasota Police Department). Because the court concluded that Jackson created the applications in his capacity as a federal officer, it entered final judgment concluding that it could not compel the production under the Florida statute.

The jurisdictional issue is intertwined with the merits of the ACLU’s petition. If Jackson completed the applications as a Sarasota Police Officer, then the state law requiring production applies, and the federal court would not even have subject matter jurisdiction. But if Jackson acted as a Special Deputy for the U.S. Marshals, then the federal court would have jurisdiction and the state law would not apply.

The Eleventh Circuit noted that it typically reviews jurisdictional discovery decisions for abuse of discretion. But two points limit a court’s discretion in motions for jurisdictional discovery: first, federal courts have limited jurisdiction and so must confirm subject matter jurisdiction early on; and second, the adversarial nature of our court system necessitates the parties’ participation. Based on these limiting factors, the Eleventh Circuit held that genuinely disputed facts that go to both the merits and the court’s jurisdiction create a qualified right to jurisdictional discovery. The district court had therefore abused its discretion by completely denying the ACLU the opportunity to probe Jackson’s capacity in creating the applications. The Eleventh Circuit remanded the case to the district court but clarified that the district court retained discretion over the form of discovery that it would grant.

Posted by Danny Wells.

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