Ground Connection LLC v. Ground Connection Technologies LLC et al
OPINION AND ORDER denying the defendants' 7 and 15 motions to dismiss. Signed by Judge J. Leon Holmes on 10/13/2017. (ljb)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
PINE BLUFF DIVISION
GROUND CONNECTION, LLC
No. 5:17CV00196 JLH
GROUND CONNECTION TECHNOLOGIES, LLC;
GROUND CONNECT, LLC; DENNIS SEAL;
and VINCENT HAZEN
OPINION AND ORDER
Ground Connection, LLC, is an Arkansas company that entered into a business relationship
with Ground Connection Technologies, LLC, which is a Texas company. The relationship centered
on developing and selling Krinner products to the Texas Department of Transportation. Ground
Connection alleges that it had an exclusive distribution agreement with Krinner Schraubfundamente.
Dennis Seal and Vincent Hazen were members of Ground Connection Technologies. The plaintiff
alleges that Seal and Hazen secretly formed Ground Connect, LLC, a Texas company, in order to
steal the business Ground Connection and Ground Connection Technologies worked to obtain. The
complaint alleges causes of action for civil conspiracy, tortious interference with a business
expectancy and relationship, fraud, unlawful and unfair competition, unjust enrichment, and an
unpaid debt. The defendants argue that this Court does not have specific jurisdiction over them and
have moved to dismiss the complaint. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(2). Alternatively, the defendants
argue that this Court should abstain from exercising jurisdiction because a related action is pending
in Texas state court. For the following reasons, the motion to dismiss is denied.
When a defendant challenges personal jurisdiction, the plaintiff bears the burden of
establishing its existence. Falkirk Min. Co. v. Japan Steel Works, Ltd., 906 F.2d 369, 373 (8th Cir.
1990). The burden is minimal and requires only that a plaintiff make a prima facie showing of
jurisdiction to defeat a 12(b)(2) motion to dismiss. Epps v. Stewart Info. Servs. Corp., 327 F.3d 642,
647 (8th Cir. 2003). This means that a plaintiff must state sufficient facts to support a reasonable
inference that defendants may be subjected to jurisdiction in the forum state. Dever v. Hentzen
Coatings, Inc., 380 F.3d 1070, 1072 (8th Cir. 2004). In ruling on the defendants’ motion to dismiss,
this Court is not limited to consideration of the pleadings alone but can test the plaintiffs’ prima
facie showing by affidavits and exhibits presented with the motion and in opposition of the motion.
The following statement of facts is taken from the pleadings, affidavits, and exhibits before
the Court. These facts are construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs and all factual
conflicts are resolved in favor of them. Epps, 327 F.3d at 647.
As described in the complaint, Ground Connection was the exclusive distributor of Krinner
ground screws and other Krinner products. Document #12 ¶31. Ground Connection had its eye on
the Texas Department of Transportation as a customer for the Krinner ground screws. Id. ¶¶32-33.
In 2011, Ground Connection met with Dennis Seal and others in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to discuss
the business opportunity of selling screws to the Texas Department of Transportation. Id. ¶10.
These discussions continued into 2012, and Seal and others formed Ground Connection
Technologies in June 2012. Id. ¶¶12-13, 32. After Ground Connection Technologies was formed,
the parties agreed that Ground Connection would be the vendor of Krinner products and Ground
Connection Technologies would be the marketing entity. Id. ¶38. Together, these companies
worked to develop and market a ground screw for use by the Texas Department of Transportation.
Id. ¶¶10, 33-38.
Before the Texas Department of Transportation would buy the screws, Ground Connection
needed to become an approved vendor and the screw needed to go through Texas Transportation
Institute testing. Id. ¶33. The Federal Highway Administration also needed to approve the screw.
Id. Ground Connection spent thousands of dollars on this project, enlisting the assistance of
structural and field engineers as well as developing expensive testing equipment needed for the
approval process. Id. ¶¶33-34, 37.
Behind the scenes, though, Ground Connection says that Seal and Hazen conspired to cut
Ground Connection out of the distribution chain. Id. ¶¶40-41. In August 2013, Seal and Hazen
formed a new company in Texas—Ground Connect, LLC—but did not disclose this to Ground
Connection. Id. ¶41. Ground Connect sought, and obtained, an exclusive distributorship agreement
with Krinner and began efforts to win the Texas Department of Transportation business. Id. ¶¶4041. In May 2016, the Texas Department of Transportation approved screw purchases from Seal and
Hazen’s Ground Connect business and not Ground Connection. Id. ¶42. Even after this, Seal and
Hazen continued communicating with Ground Connection under the pretenses of the original
business plan and did not disclose their independent scheming. Id. ¶¶41, 43.
The Texas Department of Transportation later placed a small order with Ground Connection.
Id. ¶44. Ground Connection was able to fulfill this order with existing inventory. Id. When another
larger order was placed, however, Ground Connection attempted to order screws from Krinner. Id.
Krinner has not responded to Ground Connection’s order, and Seal and Hazen’s Ground Connect
filed suit in a Texas state court alleging tortious interference. Id. That suit is also seeking a
declaration on the exclusive distributorship agreements both parties have with Krinner. Id.
The complaint alleges that between December 2012 and March 2016, Seal visited Arkansas
on more than a few occasions for business-related reasons. Id. ¶¶15-16, 20. He came to Pine Bluff
to discuss the business opportunity, to transport screws to Texas, and to pick up testing equipment.
Id. In June 2013, Hazen came to Pine Bluff to meet with investors of Ground Connection. Id. ¶17.
From 2011, when discussions first began between Ground Connection and Seal and Hazen, through
2016, the complaint alleges that Seal, Hazen, and other representatives of Ground Connection
Technologies had extensive communications with Ground Connection.
The defendants argue that defendants Seal, Hazen, and Ground Connect lack sufficient
contacts with Arkansas to warrant this Court exercising personal jurisdiction over them. They say
that Ground Connect has no contacts with Arkansas and that this is evidenced by Ground
Connection’s lack of knowledge of its existence. All contacts that Seal and Hazen had with
Arkansas, defendants say, were on behalf of Ground Connection Technologies. The defendants also
say that Hazen’s single visit to Arkansas is insufficient to establish personal jurisdiction. The
defendants acknowledge Seal’s visits to Arkansas, but they say that these are not contacts with the
forum out of which the claims arise. The defendants construe the claims as arising out of their
dealings with Krinner and the Texas Department of Transportation, and according to them, Seal’s
contacts with Arkansas are unrelated to those dealings. Ground Connection argues that the facts
alleged sufficiently establish specific jurisdiction over each of the defendants.
The reach of federal district courts is limited by both subject-matter jurisdiction and personal
jurisdiction. See U.S. Const. art. III, § 2, cl. 1; 28 U.S.C. § 1330 et seq.; U.S. Const. amend. XIV;
Int’l Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 316, 66 S. Ct. 154, 158, 90 L. Ed. 95 (1945). Courts
conduct a two-step analysis for personal jurisdiction, asking first whether the exercise of personal
jurisdiction is permitted by the forum state’s long-arm statute and second whether it is permitted by
the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution. See Hutson v. Fehr Bros., 584 F.2d 833, 835 (8th
Cir. 1978) (en banc). Arkansas’s long-arm statute is coextensive with the constitution. Ark. Code
Ann. § 16-4-101; Davis v. St. John’s Health Sys., Inc., 348 Ark. 17, 23, 71 S.W.3d 55, 58 (2002).
Accordingly, this Court need only determine whether the exercise of jurisdiction over this defendant
offends due process. See Johnson v. Woodcock, 444 F.3d 953, 955 (8th Cir. 2006).
Under the due process clause, the exercise of personal jurisdiction over a nonresident
defendant is permissible if the defendant has established minimum contacts with the forum state
“such that maintenance of the suit does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial
justice.” Int’l Shoe Co., 326 U.S. at 316, 66 S. Ct. at 158 (quotation and citations omitted). The
defendant’s conduct and connection with the forum state must be such that he reasonably anticipates
being haled into court there. Burger King Corp. v. Rudzewicz, 471 U.S. 462, 474, 105 S. Ct. 2174,
2183, 85 L. Ed. 2d 528 (1985). A defendant should reasonably anticipate such summons when the
defendant “purposefully avails itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum State,
thus invoking the benefits and protections of its laws.” Hanson v. Denckla, 357 U.S. 235, 253, 78
S. Ct. 1228, 1240, 2 L. Ed. 2d 1283 (1958) (citation omitted).
To test a defendant’s contacts with a forum state, the Eighth Circuit has directed courts to
consider the following five factors: (1) the nature and quality of the contacts with the forum state;
(2) the quantity of the contacts; (3) the relationship of the cause of action to the contacts; (4) the
interest of the forum state in providing a forum for its residents; and (5) the convenience or
inconvenience to the parties. Aftanase v. Economy Baler Co., 343 F.2d 187, 197 (8th Cir. 1965).
The first three factors are primary factors. Id. The third factor distinguishes whether jurisdiction
is specific or general. Wessels, Arnold & Henderson v. Nat’l Med. Waste, Inc., 65 F.3d 1427, 1432
n.4 (8th Cir. 1995). A forum exercises specific jurisdiction over a defendant in causes of action
arising from or related to the defendant’s contacts with the forum state. See Helicopteros
Nacionales de Colombia, S.A. v. Hall, 466 U.S. 408, 414 n.8, 104 S. Ct. 1868, 1872 n.8, 80 L. Ed.2d
404 (1984). A forum exercises general personal jurisdiction over a defendant in causes of action
not arising out of or related to the defendant’s contacts with the forum. Id. at n.9. Here, the alleged
contacts are related to the dispute that resulted in this suit, and Ground Connection relies on specific
When a plaintiff alleges an intentional tort, as Ground Connection does, the Eighth Circuit
considers the Calder effects test as an additional factor to the five listed above. See Dakota Indus.,
Inc. v. Dakota Sportswear, Inc., 946 F.2d 1384, 1391 (8th Cir. 1991). Under this test, courts
consider whether the nonresident defendant’s tortious acts (1) were intentional, (2) were aimed at
the forum state, and (3) caused harm, most of which was suffered in the forum state and which the
defendant knew would be felt by the plaintiff in the forum state. Johnson v. Arden, 614 F.3d 785,
796 (8th Cir. 2010). Jurisdiction may be asserted over a nonresident defendant “whose acts are
performed for the very purpose of having their consequences felt in the forum state.” Dakota
Sportswear, 946 F.2d at 1391 (quotations and citations omitted).
In this case, Ground Connection alleges intentional torts against the defendants. These torts
are alleged to have been directed at Ground Connection, which is based in Arkansas. The conduct
that serves as the basis for the tort is alleged to include deceptive and misleading communications
to Ground Connection in Arkansas. The defendants construe the tortious interference claim too
narrowly: it does not consist only of their dealings with Krinner and the Texas Department of
Transportation. There would be no basis for the tort claim but for an antecedent business
relationship, which Ground Connection alleges was established through visits to Arkansas and
through numerous communications with Ground Connection in Arkansas.
It is also no argument to say that Seal and Hazen’s Ground Connect has no contacts with
Arkansas simply because Ground Connection did not know of its existence. Tied up in, and indeed
necessary to, Ground Connection’s claims is the secret formation of Ground Connect to steal
business it had worked to obtain. Ground Connect is alleged to have been formed in August 2013.
Seal and Hazen’s contacts with Arkansas after Ground Connect’s formation were on behalf of
Ground Connect even if they did not disclose its existence. Ground Connect’s actions are the
actions of its members, which included Seal and Hazen.
Moreover, a single contact can support jurisdiction if it creates a “substantial connection”
with the forum. Rudzewicz, 471 U.S. at 475 n.18, 105 S. Ct. at 2184 n.18. An intentional tort within
the forum creates a substantial connection that will support personal jurisdiction. See, e.g., Wien
Air Alaska, Inc. v. Brandt, 195 F.3d 208, 213 (5th Cir. 1999) (“When the actual content of
communications with a forum gives rise to intentional tort causes of action, this alone constitutes
purposeful availment.”); Dakota Sportswear, 946 F.2d at 1390 (drawing a distinction between
negligence actions and those in which an intentional tort is alleged). In such a case the nature and
quality of the contacts with the forum state, the relationship of the cause of action to the contacts,
and the interest of the forum state in providing a forum for its residents all weigh in favor of the
exercise of jurisdiction. Id. at 1391 (explaining that when an intentional tort is alleged, court still
uses five-factor Aftanase test but considers additional factors presented by the tort).
Even if none of the claims arises out of the defendants’ contacts with Arkansas, the Calder
effects test provides jurisdiction over them. Ground Connection alleges an intentional tort, that was
aimed at its business in Arkansas, and that caused harm, the brunt of which was felt by Ground
Connection in Arkansas. This Court has jurisdiction over the defendants.
The defendants alternatively ask this Court to abstain from exercising jurisdiction because
of the Texas state court suit that is pending.
Federal courts have a “virtually unflagging
obligation . . . to exercise the jurisdiction given them.” Colorado River Water Conservation Dist.
v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 817, 96 S. Ct. 1236, 1246, 47 L. Ed. 2d 483 (1976). Before a court
will abstain under the “exceptional circumstances” recognized in Colorado River, there must be
pending parallel state and federal court proceedings. United States v. Rice, 605 F.3d 473, 476 (8th
Cir. 2010). The defendants’ suit in Texas is not strictly parallel to this one. The defendants argue
that if the state court holds that they have an exclusive right to distribute and sell Krinner screws,
no claims would remain in this suit. Such a holding would not dispose of each of Ground
The tortious interference with a business expectancy centers on the
relationship between Ground Connection and Seal, Hazen, and Ground Connection Technologies.
The Krinner distributorship agreements are not dispositive of that claim. Ground Connection also
claims an unpaid debt that is surely independent of any determination on the distributorship
For the foregoing reasons, the defendants’ motions to dismiss are DENIED. Documents #7
IT IS SO ORDERED this 13th day of October, 2017.
J. LEON HOLMES
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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