:: District Court Opinion Provides A Primer On ERISA Venue Considerations

28 U.S.C. § 1404(a) provides that, for “the convenience of parties and witnesses, in the interest of justice, a district court may transfer any civil action to any other district or division where it might have been brought.”  The plain text of § 1404(a) requires a two-part analysis.  The Court must first determine if the action could have originally been filed in the transferee district.  Van Dusen v. Barrack, 376 U.S. 612, 616 (1964).  If so, the Court must then determine “whether, on balance, a transfer would serve ‘the convenience of the parties and witnesses’ and otherwise promote ‘the interest of justice.’”  Atl. Marine Constr. Co. v. U.S. Dist. Court for W. Dist. of Tex., 134 S. Ct. 568, 581 (2013) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a)).

JANICE D. YOUNGBLOOD, Plaintiff v. LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY OF NORTH AMERICA (W.D. Kentucky April 14, 2016) Slip Copy 2016 WL 1466559

In this claim for long term disability benefits case, the plaintiff filed suit in the Western District of Kentucky though she lived in the Northern District of Alabama for a company that was headquartered in Wisconsin. Which district is proper for venue?

The district court reviewed the various factors and provides a useful overview of considerations involved in on a motion to transfer venue (which the defendant LINA filed). The plaintiff clearly wanted the case in the Sixth Circuit but the court found that Alabama was the proper venue after applying the factor analysis.

Preliminary Question

As an initial matter, the court noted that venue must be proper in another district before the Court can transfer. Venue in an ERISA action is proper in any district:

(1) “where the plan is administered,

(2) where the breach took place, or

(3) where a defendant resides or may be found.” 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e)(2).

Regarding (2), a breach that results from plaintiffs being denied benefits occurs where the benefits are to be received

Regarding (3) “A defendant ‘resides or may be found,’ for ERISA venue purposes, in any district in which its ‘minimum contacts’ would support the exercise of personal jurisdiction.” Moore v. Rohm & Haas Co., 446 F.3d 643, 646 (6th Cir. 2006)

Private and Public Interest Factors

In the usual case, the Court evaluates various private- and public-interest factors, always mindful to “give some weight to the [plaintiff’s] choice of forum.”  Id.

–  Private-interest Factors

Factors relevant to the parties’ private interests include:

(1) the convenience of the parties,

(2) the convenience of the witnesses,

(3) the accessibility of relevant evidence,

(4) the availability of compulsory process to make reluctant witnesses testify,

(5) the cost of obtaining willing witnesses’ testimony, and

(6) any other practical problems that make trial of a case easy, expeditious, and inexpensive. Reese v. CNH Am. LLC, 574 F.3d 315, 320 (6th Cir. 2009); see also Atlantic Marine, 134 S. Ct. at 581 n.6.

–  Public-interest Factors

These factors involve such matters as:

(1) administrative difficulties flowing from courtcongestion,

(2) the local interest in deciding the controversy at home, and

(3) in a diversity case, the interest of having the trial in a forum familiar with governing law.  Atlantic Marine, 134 S.Ct. at 581 n.6.

The court noted that “neither recitation is exhaustive, but each is illustrative of the issues typically considered by the courts of this Circuit.”

Broad Discretion Vested in District Court

“As the permissive language of the transfer statute suggests, district courts have ‘broad discretion’ to determine when party ‘convenience’ or ‘the interest of justice’ make a transfer appropriate.”  Reese, 574 F.3d at 320.

Burden of Proof

The movant bears the burden of showing that transfer is appropriate.  Boiler Specialists, LLC v. Corrosion Monitoring Servs., Inc., No. 1:12-CV-47, 2012 WL 3060385, at *2 (W.D. Ky. July 26, 2012) (collecting cases).

Applying the Factors

As a general matter, a “Plaintiff’s choice is forum” is “entitled to considerable weight in determining whether transfer is warranted – unless the choice is not the Plaintiff’s home forum as was the case here.

The court granted the motion to transfer to the plaintiff’s home state noting that:

Since some potential witnesses are located in Alabama and no potential witnesses are located in Wisconsin, this factor favors transfer to the Northern District of Alabama.  The Court also finds that Youngblood, who is located in Winfield, Alabama, would be more convenience by having this case transferred to the Northern District of Alabama.  Should she need to be deposed, be ordered to attend a settlement conference, or simply wish to view a hearing in her case, the Northern District of Alabama is most convenient.

In the final analysis, “[a] plaintiff’s preference for a forum, one which is not plaintiff’s home forum and has little connection to the case, will not defeat a defendant’s well-supported motion to transfer to a more convenient forum.

Note:  The court noted that the availability of witnesses did not weigh as heavily in an ERISA claim for benefits case:

As this is an ERISA case, Youngblood’s action will primarily be decided using the administrative record on which LINA relied when it denied her claim.  Consequently, the relative ease of access to sources of proof, the convenience of witnesses, the availability of compulsory process, and the cost of obtaining willing witnesses’ testimony are not factors which weigh as heavily as in other civil cases.  However, if the parties do decide to have witnesses testify, this factor favors the Northern District of Alabama over the Eastern District of Wisconsin.