United States District Court for the District of Columbia
May 14, 2004.
JOAN BERENSON, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, et al., Plaintiffs,
NATIONAL FINANCIAL SERVICES, LLC, et al., Defendants
The opinion of the court was delivered by: REGGIE B. WALTON, District Judge
This matter comes before the Court on Defendants' Motion to Transfer
Venue ("Defs.' Mot."). The plaintiffs have brought this class action
lawsuit on behalf of themselves and all other similarly situated
individuals who, "as subscribers to an electronic bill payment service
owned and operated by [the] Defendants, lost the use of certain monies
and were not paid interest on those monies as they should have been."
Complaint ("Compl.") ¶ 1. The plaintiffs, residents of the District of
Columbia, have brought claims against defendants National Financial
Services, LLC, and Fidelity Brokerage Services, LLC, which are both
Delaware limited liability companies with a principal place of business
in Massachusetts, pursuant to the Electronic Funds Transfer Act
("EFTA"), 15 U.S.C. § 1693 (2000), the Massachusetts Truth-in-Savings
Law, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140E, § 1 et seq., and the Massachusetts
Consumer and Business Protection Act, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 93A, § 1 et
seq. Compl. ¶ 1. In the alternative, the plaintiff asserts that "[t]o
the extent . . . Massachusetts law . . . is found not to apply to
Plaintiffs' claims and the claims of the Class members, Plaintiffs bring
[their consumer protection] claim under the District of Columbia Consumer
Procedures Protection Act," D.C. Code 28-3909 (2001). Id. 1 30. The
plaintiffs have also filed common law claims against the defendants for intentional
misrepresentation, negligent misrepresentation, breach of fiduciary duty,
and breach of contract. Id. ¶¶ 64-82.
The defendants seek to transfer this case to the United States District
Court for the District of Massachusetts asserting that "the center of
gravity in this case lies squarely in Massachusetts by nearly every
relevant measure that federal courts have recognized, and there is no
consideration in favor of continuing the case in this District." Defs.'
Mot., Memorandum of Law in Support of Defendants' Motion to Transfer
Venue ("Defs.' Mem.") at 1. Upon consideration of the parties'
submissions and for the reasons set forth below, the Court will grant the
defendants' motion to transfer this case to the United States District
Court for the District of Massachusetts.
Section 1404(a) of Title 28 of the United States Code 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."
28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). Because the plaintiffs concede that this action
could have been brought in Massachusetts, see Plaintiffs' Opposition to
Defendants' Motion to Transfer Venue ("Pls.' Opp'n") at 2, this Court
must focus on certain private and public-interest factors in order to
determine the proper forum for the litigation of this case. See Liban v.
Churchey Group II. L.L.C., No. Civ. A. 03-242, 2004 WL 360285 at *4
(D.D.C. Feb. 26, 2004) (Urbina, J.) (citing Van Dusen v. Barrack.
376 U.S. 612, 613 (1964): Trout Unlimited v. Dep't of Agric.,
944 F. Supp. 13, 16 (D.D.C. 1996)). In McClamrock v. Eli Lilly & Co.,
267 F. Supp.2d 33 (D.D.C. 2003) (Walton, J.), this Court reiterated that
[t]he private considerations that may be considered
include: (1) the plaintiff's choice of forum, unless
the balance of convenience is strongly in favor of the
defendants; (2) the defendants' choice of forum; (3)
whether the claim arose elsewhere; (4) the convenience
of the parties; (5) the convenience of the witnesses of the plaintiff and defendant, but
only to the extent that the witnesses may actually
be unavailable for trial in one of the for a; and
(6) the ease of access to sources of proof.
Id. at 37 (quoting Trout Unlimited v. United States Dep't of Agric.,
944 F. Supp. 13, 16 (D.D.C. 1996) (citations omitted)). The Court's first
consideration, and perhaps the most contentious, is the degree of
deference that should be given to the plaintiffs' choice of forum. While
the defendants recognize that "ordinarily `the plaintiffs choice of forum
is given substantial deference,'" Def.'s Mem. at 4 (quoting McClamrock,
267 F. Supp.2d at 36), they assert that in this case, because it has been
brought as a class action lawsuit, the "plaintiff's home forum is
irrelevant." Id. (quoting Georgouses v. NaTec Res., Inc., 963 F. Supp. 728,
730 (N.D. 111. 1997)). While this Court is not prepared to conclude that
this first consideration is irrelevant in a case of this nature,
certainly in a class action suit in which the plaintiffs propose to
represent a class of potential plaintiffs who reside throughout the
country, the plaintiffs' choice of forum deserves less weight than it is
typically given. See Williams v. Sears Roebuck & Co., No. C97-3794, 1998
WL 61307 at *1 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 29, 1998) (stating that "[t]here is little
deference given to choice of forums by plaintiff'[s] representing a
nationwide class.") (citing Blake Const. Co., Inc. v. Int'l Harvester
Co., 521 F. Supp. 1268
, 1271-72 (N.D. 111. 1981)); Steiner v. Hercules.
Inc., 1990 WL 97811, Civ. A. No. 90-1247, at *2 (E.D. Pa. July 9, 1990)
(stating that "courts typically give plaintiffs' choice of forum less
weight in class action cases.") (citation omitted); Supco v. Automotive
Parts. Inc. v. Triangle Auto Spring Co., 538 F. Supp. 1187, 1191 (E.D.
Pa. 1982) (stating that when "the plaintiff seeks to represent a class of
many potential plaintiffs scattered across the country, plaintiff's
choice of forum deserves less weight.") (citations omitted).
Here, the defendants have provided a chart of their clients, and thus
the potential members of the plaintiffs' class if class certification is
granted, which lists the percentage of potential class members who reside in various jurisdictions throughout the
country. Defs.' Mot., Ex. A (Spreadsheet of BillPay Client Statistics by
State as of 10/24/03). The largest percentage of Fidelity BillPay's
clients (15.36%) reside in Massachusetts, while only 0.51% of its clients
reside in the District of Columbia. Id. The plaintiffs contend that this
Court's decision in Ouarles v. General Investment & Development Co.,
260 F. Supp.2d 1 (D.D.C. 2003) (Walton, J.), supports their position that
the Court should only focus on the named plaintiffs in this class action
lawsuit, rather than on where other potential class plaintiffs reside.
Thus, because the named plaintiffs reside in the District of Columbia,
the plaintiffs submit that the Court should give deference to their
choice of forum. Pis.' Opp'n at 5. However, the Court must agree with the
defendants that plaintiffs' reliance on Ouarles is misplaced. The
significant distinction between Ouarles and this case is that in Ouarles
the plaintiff brought her class action suit pursuant to Title VII and the
District of Columbia Human Rights Act. 260 F. Supp.2d at 7. And, Title
VII has a specific venue statute, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(3) (2000), that
is substantially different from the general venue statute of section
1391(e). Accordingly, in Ouarles this Court specifically distinguished
those cases in which section 1391(e) was implicated from the application
of Title VII's venue provision. Id at 12 (finding that the two general
venue statute "cases [cited in Ouarles] were inapposite to the . . .
situation [in Ouarles]. Both cases involved the venue provision of
section 1391(e), which differs substantially from [
42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(3)]."). Thus, the Court concludes that little
deference will be given to the plaintiffs' choice of forum in this case.
Turning to the remaining private interest considerations, the Court
concludes that after balancing the different interests, the District of
Massachusetts is the more appropriate venue for the litigation of this
case. The second private interest consideration is the defendants choice
of forum, and they desire to have this matter transferred to the District of
Massachusetts. While the third consideration, i.e., where the claim
arose, is disputed, the plaintiffs fail to cite any cases to contradict
the defendants' position that the claims arose at the location where the
corporate decisions were made. In this regard, the defendants state that
Fidelity's overall management of the BillPay System,
including relations with the BillPay vendor,
CheckFree, as well as customer communications and
agreements, is exercised in Boston, Massachusetts.
Since the corporate decisions underlying plaintiffs'
claims were made in Boston, the claims `arose' there
for the purposes of venue analysis.
Defs.' Mem. at 6. As support for their position, the defendants cite the
district court's opinion in GeorRouses, which concluded that "[t]he
material events in question . . . are the actions the defendants took
that allegedly caused the economic damage, and those actions are alleged
to have occurred in Houston." 963 F. Supp. 731 . Thus, while the
plaintiffs who were residents of Illinois suffered economic damage in
Illinois, because the actions that caused the harm occurred in Houston,
the Georgouses Court determined that Houston was the location where the
claims arose. Id. The plaintiffs respond by arguing that even though the
policy decisions may have been made in Boston, they were implemented in
the District of Columbia and thus, as to the District residents, the
claims arose here. Pls.' Opp'n at 9. There is, however, no legal support
provided for the plaintiffs' proposition. The next two considerations,
convenience of the parties and convenience of the witnesses, do not weigh
in favor of either party. This is because Massachusetts is more
convenient for the defendants and this District is more convenient for
the named plaintiffs. And, with respect to the convenience of the
witnesses, there is no evidence that any witnesses will be unavailable in
either of the forums. Turning to the last private consideration, i.e.,
ease of access to the sources of proof, the Court finds that
Massachusetts is the preferable forum because key witnesses and most of
the documentary evidence is located there. See Defs.' Mot., Affidavit of Colleen A. Hankins ¶¶ 8-9.
As noted above, the Court must also take certain public interest
factors into consideration in determining the proper forum for this
case. The public interest factors courts have taken into consideration
include "(1) the transferee's familiarity with the governing laws; (2)
the relative congestion of the calendars of the potential transferor and
transferee courts; and (3) the local interest in deciding local
controversies at home." Liban, 2004 WL 360285 (citing Trout Unlimited.
944 F. Supp. at 16). The most significant of these considerations in this
case is the ability of the court to interpret and apply the local law
applicable to this litigation. While both forums are equally capable of
addressing the federal EFTA claim, the plaintiffs have also asserted
claims pursuant to the Massachusetts Truth-in-Savings Law, the
Massachusetts Consumer and Business Protection Act, and common law claims
of intentional misrepresentation, negligent misrepresentation, breach of
fiduciary duty, and breach of contract, which will all presumably require
application of the law of Massachusetts since there is a forum selection
clause in "the pertinent agreements that govern the [plaintiffs']
relationship with Fidelity generally and the Bill Pay service [that]
specifically provide that they `shall be governed by the laws of the
Commonwealth of Massachusetts.'" Defs.' Mot. at 7 (quoting Statement of
Undisputed Facts in Support of Defendants' Motion to Dismiss and for
Summary Judgment ¶¶ 56, 60; Compl. ¶¶ 33, 34). The plaintiffs do not
dispute this. Clearly, this Court's Massachusetts colleagues have greater
familiarity with Massachusetts law and therefore superior capability to
accurately apply Massachusetts law than would this Court. The second
public interest consideration, i.e., relative congestion of the courts'
calendars, is not significant in this situation. The parties have
presented conflicting evidence on the relative congestion of the courts,
which demonstrates that there is no significant distinction between the
two courts in this regard. Finally, because this is a class action lawsuit, with the claims
arising in Massachusetts and the largest amount of potential plaintiffs
residing there, the Court finds that Massachusetts has the greatest
interest in deciding this controversy.
Accordingly, for the aforementioned reasons, the Court finds that
transfer of this matter to the District of Massachusetts pursuant to
28 U.S.C. § 1404(a) is appropriate.*fn1