The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kessler, District Judge.
Plaintiffs*fn1 bring this putative class action on behalf of
what they claim to be hundreds of thousands of tobacco growers
and quota holders in the Southeast United States and elsewhere,
alleging that Defendant tobacco companies*fn2 have unlawfully
conspired, from before 1996 through the present, to engage in
various anti-competitive activities, including bid-rigging, at
tobacco auctions sponsored by the United States Department of
Agriculture. This matter is before the Court on Joint Defendants'
Motion to Transfer this action to the United States District
Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. Upon careful
consideration of the Motion, Opposition, Reply, and the entire
record herein, for the reasons stated below, Defendants' Motion
to Transfer is granted.
Seven named Plaintiffs bring this as a putative class action on
behalf of themselves and all other persons and entities who have
held a quota to grow, or have sold, flue-cured or burley tobacco
in the United States "at any time from February 1996 to the
present" Second Am.Compl. ("Compl.") ¶ 19. The putative class
includes, but is not limited to, the 5,930 persons named in the
original and first amended complaints.*fn3 Id.
The following is a brief description of Plaintiffs'
allegations. According to Plaintiffs, all individuals or entities
who wish to produce tobacco must hold a "quota," which specifies
the amount and type of tobacco that can be grown each year.
Plaintiffs allege that this quota is a "property right," and that
quota holders may, subject to certain restrictions, sell or lease
their right to grow certain types of tobacco. Compl. ¶ 32.
The United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA") sets the
quota for both burley and flue-cured tobacco each year based on a
rigid three-part formula, with little or no room for discretion,
and then allocates a pro rata quota among the individual quota
holders. Compl. ¶ 34. Plaintiffs allege that quota holders
"generally" sell their tobacco at auctions sponsored by the USDA,
which, according to Defendants, occur primarily in Georgia,
Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and
Virginia (i.e., the Southeast United States). Compl. ¶ 36; Mem.
of Law in Support of Def.'s Joint Mot. to Transfer ("Def.'s
Mem.") at 8. According to Plaintiffs, cigarette manufacturers
must bid above a "minimum price" at these auctions, and if no
such bid occurs, the unsold tobacco is purchased by an
"agricultural co-operative at the minimum price" and is then
placed into a reserve. Compl. ¶ 37.
Plaintiffs allege that the conduct described above (the bid
rigging and general anti-competitive conduct) allows Defendants
to limit their purchases at auctions, which causes more tobacco
to be placed into the "discounted reserve program." Compl. ¶ 45.
Plaintiffs further allege that Defendants' anti-competitive acts
have allowed them to "lower their purchase intentions submitted
to USDA each year since 1997," which in turn lowers Plaintiffs'
yearly tobacco quota. Compl. ¶ 46. According to Plaintiffs, the
goal of Defendants is to destroy or eliminate the USDA tobacco
program, an outcome that would permit Defendants to exercise
greater monopsony power. Compl. ¶ 47. Based on Defendants'
alleged anti-competitive actions, Plaintiffs bring two claims
under the Sherman Antitrust Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1 and 2.
Defendants seek to transfer this case pursuant to
28 U.S.C. § 1404(a), which provides that "[f]or 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 burden is on the moving party to
demonstrate that transfer would be proper. Reiffin v. Microsoft
Corp., 104 F. Supp.2d 48, 50 (D.D.C. 2000) (citing Air Line
Pilots Ass'n v. Eastern Air Lines, 672 F. Supp. 525, 526 (D.D.C.
1987)). However, this Court retains substantial "discretion" as
to whether to grant a motion to transfer, and should adjudicate
such motions "`according to individualized, case-by-case
consideration of convenience and fairness.'" Hawksbill Sea
Turtle v. FEMA, 939 F. Supp. 1, 3 (D.D.C. 1996) (quoting Stewart
Org., Inc. v. Ricoh Corp., 487 U.S. 22, 27, 108 S.Ct. 2239, 101
L.Ed.2d 22 (1988)); Chung v. Chrysler Corp., 903 F. Supp. 160,
164 (D.D.C. 1995).
The present lawsuit may be transferred to the Middle District
of North Carolina only if it could have been brought there.
28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). Accordingly, the threshold question is whether
this suit could have been brought in the proposed transferee
district. Kafack v. Primerica Life Ins. Co., 934 F. Supp. 3, 5
(D.D.C. 1996) (citing Van Dusen v. Barrack, 376 U.S. 612, 84
S.Ct. 805, 11 L.Ed.2d 945 (1964)); Chung v. Chrysler Corp.,
903 F. Supp. 160, 162 (D.D.C. 1995). The present suit is based on
federal question jurisdiction, see Compl. ¶ 2, and therefore
may be brought in "a judicial district where any defendant
resides, if all defendants reside in the same State."
28 U.S.C. § 1391(b)(1). As it is uncontested that because each Defendant
transacts business in the Middle District of North Carolina, it
is subject to personal jurisdiction there, see Def.'s Mem at
12, each Defendant is deemed to be a resident of that district
for diversity purposes. 28 U.S.C. § 1391(c). Accordingly, "all
defendants" reside in North Carolina, and venue is proper in the
Middle District of that state.
Before considering the traditional transfer factors, it is
important to note that although a plaintiff's choice of forum is
ordinarily accorded a significant degree of deference, numerous
cases in this Circuit recognize that such a choice receives
substantially less deference where the plaintiffs, as here,
neither reside in, nor have any substantial connection to, that
forum. See Reiffin, 104 F. Supp.2d at 52;
Hawksbill Sea Turtle, 939 F. Supp. at 3; Chung, 903 F. Supp. at
165; Comptroller of Currency v. Calhoun First Nat'l Bank,
626 F. Supp. 137, 140 n. 9 (D.D.C. 1985); Islamic Republic of Iran v.
Boeing Co., 477 F. Supp. 142, 144 (D.D.C. 1979) (noting that
plaintiff's choice of forum is accorded "diminished
consideration" where that forum "has no meaningful ties to the
controversy and no particular interest in the parties or subject
matter") (citations omitted).
For the following reasons, the Court concludes that the
customary deference is not warranted in this case. First, none of
the named Plaintiffs or identified class members reside in the
District of Columbia. See Def.'s Mem. at 4. Only a relatively
tiny number of unidentified class members resides in the
District. of Columbia. See Pl.'s Mem. of Points and Auth. in
Opp'n to Def.'s Joint Mot. to Transfer ("Pl.'s Mem.") at ...