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Mossack Fonseca & Co. v. Netflix Inc.

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

October 17, 2019

NETFLIX, INC., Defendant.


          JANET Bond Arterton, U.S.D.J.

         In 2016, an anonymous whistleblower obtained millions of internal documents from the Mossack Fonseca business group and released them to the press. These documents contained information regarding Mossack Fonseca's provision of offshore financial services to clients around the globe, and they became known as the "Panama Papers." The Panama Papers data-dump provides the basis for The Laundromat, a Netflix original film set to debut on the production company's streaming platform on October 18, 2019.

         Mossack Fonseca and its principals ("Plaintiffs") allege that The Laundromats depiction of their work in the offshore financial services industry libels principals Jiirgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca, invades Mossack and Fonseca's privacy by portraying them in a false light, and dilutes and falsely advertises the firm's trademarked logo in violation of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125.

         The threshold issue of Court's authority to hear Plaintiffs' claims is presented in Netflix's Motion to Dismiss [Doc. # 9] for lack of personal jurisdiction, on the grounds that Plaintiffs lack sufficient ties to Connecticut to avail themselves of this forum. In the alternative, Netflix requests that the case be transferred to the District Court for the Central District of California, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 1404(a).

         The Court agrees that it lacks jurisdiction, and so transfers the case for the reasons that follow.

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs Jiirgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca are licensed attorneys who reside in the Republic of Panama. (First Amended Compl. [Doc. # 22] 5 1.) Plaintiffs "were primarily in the business of forming and maintaining offshore companies," "commonly referred to as 'tax havens.1 (Id. ¶5 6-7.) To that end, Mossack and Fonseca owned and operated the law firm Bufete MF & Co. and the corporation Mossack Fonseca & Co., S.A. (Jrf.¶f 2-3.) These business entities, which are also named as plaintiffs to this lawsuit, were organized under Panamanian law and headquartered in Panama City. (Id.)

         Defendant Netflix, Inc., is a multimedia company that is headquartered in the State of California and incorporated in the State of Delaware. (Id. 5 J 4-5.) Netflix is also registered with the Connecticut Secretary of State as a foreign corporation[1] authorized to conduct business. (Id. ¶ 5.) Netflix is the distributor of the 2019 film The Laundromat, which portrays Plaintiffs as lead characters. (Id. ¶¶ 60-62.) Netflix also operates a streaming service that has millions of subscribers worldwide. (Id. ¶ 121.)

         In 2016, an anonymous whistleblower provided 11.5 million Mossack Fonseca documents - the "Panama Papers" - to a German journalist. (Id. ¶ 28.) The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists ("ICIJ"), assisted in reviewing these documents and produced stories "detailing] the connections between Government officials and offshore holdings, as well as others involved in illegal activities, utilizing entities alleged [ly]" created by Plaintiffs. (Id. ¶¶ 30-33.)

         Following this initial coverage of the Panama Papers, a member of the ICIJ team, Jake Bernstein, published a book on the documents titled Secrecy World. (Id. f¶ 46-47.) In either 2017 or 2018, Bernstein sold the film rights to his book to Netflix. (Id. J 61.) The Panama Papers film was produced under the name The Laundromat and advertised as being "based on some real shit." (Id. at 1.) The film stars Gary Oldman as Jiirgen Mossack and Antonio Banderas as Ramon Fonseca, and "portrays the Plaintiffs as ruthless, uncaring and unethical lawyers involved in money laundering, tax evasion and/or other criminal activities that benefit wealthy people and/or dangerous criminals." (Id. ¶¶ 79-82.)

         Netflix premiered The Laundromat at the Venice Film Festival on September 1, 2019 and screened it at the Toronto Film Festival on September 9, 2019. (Ex. 2 to Def.'s Opposition to Pis.' Motion for Temporary Restraining Order, Davin Declaration [Doc. # 20-2] ¶ 2.) The film was released in select theaters in New York and California on September 27, 2019. (Id.) Netflix intends to add The Laundromat to its streaming platform for consumption by its subscribers on October 18, 2019. (Id. at ¶ 3.)

         On October 15, 2019, Plaintiffs filed a five-count complaint in the District Court for the District of Connecticut, alleging libel among other harms. (See Compl. [Doc. #1] at 1.) That same day, Plaintiffs applied for a temporary restraining order to prevent Netflix from streaming The Laundromat without a disclaimer that "Plaintiffs have never been convicted of money laundering, tax evasion or any financial crime" and to prohibit Netflix from including the Mossack Fonseca & Co., S.A. logo in its movie. (Pis.' Application for Ex Parte Temporary Restraining Order [Doc. # 2] at 1.)

         On October 16, 2019, Netflix filed an appearance and motion to dismiss, contending that it was not subject to the Court's personal jurisdiction over it in Connecticut. (Mem. in Support of Mot. to Dismiss [Doc. # 9-1] at 1). Netflix asked the Court to dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint, or, in the alternative, transfer the case to a proper venue. (Id. at 1.) The Court then ordered an expedited briefing schedule in light of The Laundromat's imminent release [Doc. #17].

         II. ...

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