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Oppenheimer v. The Goldklang Group and South Carolina Baseball Club

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division

May 15, 2019

David Oppenheimer, Plaintiff,
The Goldklang Group and South Carolina Baseball Club, LP d/b/a The Charleston RiverDogs, Defendants.


          Richard M. Gergel United States District Court Judge

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants' Partial Motion to Dismiss (Dkt. No. 24). For the reasons set forth below, the Court denies the motion.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff David Oppenheimer filed this action on October 2, 2018, against Defendants The Goldklang Group ("TGG") and South Carolina Baseball Club, LP d/b/a The Charleston RiverDogs. (Dkt. No. 1.) Plaintiff alleges generally that the Defendants infringed on Plaintiffs' copyrights by using his photographs in promotional materials for the Charleston RiverDogs without permission. (Id.) On January 17, 2019, Defendants filed a partial motion to dismiss, seeking to dismiss "The Goldklang Group" as a Defendant, arguing that it is a fictitious entity that does not exist and therefore cannot be sued. (Dkt. No. 14.) Plaintiff subsequently filed an amended complaint, which included additional allegations regarding TGG, including that TGG is a consulting and management firm that operates the RiverDogs, and the initial motion to dismiss was denied as moot. (Dkt. Nos. 18 at ¶ 5; 22.) Defendants now renew their motion to dismiss, again arguing that TGG cannot be sued as it is a nonexistent, fictitious entity. (Dkt. Nos. 24; 32.)

         Defendants additionally argue that, even if TGG can be sued, the Court lacks personal jurisdiction overTGG. (Id.) Plaintiff opposes the motion. (Dkt. No. 31.)

         II. Legal Standard

         When personal jurisdiction is challenged, the burden is on the plaintiff to establish jurisdiction. Combs v. Bakker, 886 F.2d 673, 676 (4th Cir. 1989). When resolved on written submissions, the plaintiff must make a "prima facie showing of a sufficient jurisdictional basis." Id. The plaintiffs showing must be based on facts set forth in the record, taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Magic Toyota, Inc. v. Se. Toyota Distribs., Inc., 784 F.Supp. 306, 310 (D.S.C. 1992); Sonoco Prods. Co. v. ACE INA Ins., 877 F.Supp.2d 398, 404-05 (D.S.C. 2012) (internal quotation and alteration marks omitted). However, a court "need not credit conclusory allegations or draw farfetched inferences." Sonoco, 877 F.Supp.2d at 405 (citations omitted).

         To meet their burden, a plaintiff must show (1) that South Carolina's long-arm statute authorizes jurisdiction, and (2) that the exercise of personal jurisdiction complies with constitutional due process requirements. See, e.g. Christian Sci. Bd. of Dirs. of First Church of Christ, Scientist v. Nolan, 259 F.3d 209, 215 (4th Cir. 2001). Since South Carolina's long-arm statute extends to the constitutional limits of due process, the only inquiry is whether due process requirements are met. ESAB Group, Inc. v. Centricut, LLC, 34 F.Supp.2d 323, 328 (D.S.C. 1999); S. Plastics Co. v. S. Commerce Bank, 423 S.E.2d 128 (S.C. 1992).

         Due process requires that a defendant have sufficient "minimum contacts with [the forum] such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend 'traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.'" Int'lShoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 316 (1945) (citations omitted). This can be met by showing either general or specific personal jurisdiction. ALS Scan, Inc. v. Digital Serv. Consultants, Inc., 293 F.3d 707, 711-12 (4th Cir. 2002) (citations omitted). To assert general jurisdiction, a defendant's contacts must be "so 'continuous and systematic' as to render them essentially at home in the forum State." Daimler AG v. Bauman, 571 U.S. 117, 127, 134 S.Ct. 746, 754 (2014) (citations omitted). For a corporation, that traditionally renders them subject to general jurisdiction in its state of incorporation or principal place of business. Id. at 137.

         To determine whether specific jurisdiction exists, the Court considers "(1) the extent to which the defendant has purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting activities in the state; (2) whether the plaintiffs' claims arise out of those activities directed at the state; and (3) whether the exercise of personal jurisdiction would be constitutionally 'reasonable.'" Carefirst of Maryland, Inc. v. Carefirst Pregnancy Centers, Inc., 334 F.3d 390, 397 (4th Cir. 2003) (citations omitted). In other words, a defendant must have "minimum contacts" with the forum, the claim must arise from those contacts, and personal jurisdiction must be reasonable. Burger King Corp. v. Rudzewicz, 471 U.S. 462, 472 - 476 (1985). Courts evaluate the reasonableness by considering "(a) the burden on the defendant, (b) the interests of the forum state, (c) the plaintiffs interest in obtaining relief, (d) the efficient resolution of controversies as between states, and (e) the shared interests of the several states in furthering substantive social policies." Lesnick v. Hollingsworth & Vose Co., 35 F.3d 939, 946 (4th Cir. 1994). "Minimum contacts" and "reasonableness" are not independent requirements; rather, they are both aspects of due process, and thus "considerations sometimes serve to establish the reasonableness of jurisdiction upon a lesser showing of minimum contacts than would otherwise be required." Burger King, 471 U.S. at 477.

         III. Discussion

         Defendants argue that TGG does not exist and therefore cannot be sued. For parties other than an individual or corporation, capacity to suit is determined by "the law of the state where the court is located[.]" Fed.R.Civ.P. 17(b)(3).[1] Under South Carolina law, "[a]ll unincorporated associations may be sued and proceeded against under the name and style by which they are usually known without naming the individual members of the association." S.C. Code Ann. § 15-5-160. As explained by the Court of Appeals of South Carolina, "[a]n unincorporated association is a body of individual persons organized without a charter for the prosecution of some common enterprise." Graham v. Lloyd's of London, 296 S.C. 249, 255 (Ct. App. 1988). S.C. Code Ann. § 15-5-160 permits a plaintiff to "bring the members of an association before the court without naming and serving process upon them individually." Id. See also Fowler v. Beasley, 322 S.C. 463, 466 (1996) ("an unincorporated association may be sued under the name by which it was generally known without naming the individual members of the association."). Importantly, SC Code Ann. § 15-5-160 only provides a procedure for bringing parties before the Court, and any "liability of the members of the determined by the applicable substantive law." Graham, 296 S.C. at 256. TGG therefore, as an unincorporated association, can be sued.

         As The Goldklang Group is capable of being sued, the Court must determine whether it has personal jurisdiction over TGG. Defendants submit affidavits and argue that there is no personal jurisdiction over TGG because TGG only exists as a "branding strategy" and a "loose affiliation" of minor league baseball teams with overlapping ownership. (Dkt. Nos. 24 at 4; 24-1 at ¶ 7.) They submit that there is no entity named The Goldklang Group, that TGG is not incorporated, does not have a place of business, has no ownership interest in the RiverDogs, has no offices, employees, agents, a registered agent, or representatives in South Carolina, does not pay any taxes, and does not own any bank accounts, assets or have any parent or subsidiary companies. (Dkt. Nos. 24-1.) Defendants also contend that to the extent anyone involved with TGG provides leadership or engages in hiring for the Riverdogs it is through separate entities, such as Defendant South Carolina Baseball Club, L.P., and not on behalf of TGG. (Dkt. No. 24-2.)

         However, Plaintiff submitted evidence to meet their burden to show personal jurisdiction over Defendant TGG. Regardless of whether the Court has general jurisdiction, it is clear that specific jurisdiction exists here. Plaintiff submitted multiple screen shots from TGG's website. (Dkt. No. 18-1.) TGG's website states that it is a "sports entertainment consulting and management firm" that was formed as an "investment partnership" to acquire "controlling interests in three Minor League Baseball franchises," including the Charleston RiverDogs, whose logo is shown on the page. (Id.) The page goes on to state that TGG has "participated in the construction and/or financing of three minor league stadiums," listing Charleston as one of their projects. (Id.) Further, the webpage indicates that it is copyrighted by "The Goldklang Group." (Id.) The website additionally states that the RiverDogs play "under their Goldklang Group ownership" and that TGG continues to "oversee the club." (Dkt. No. 18-2.) TGG, on their website and other job search websites, also posts job openings for the RiverDogs. ...

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