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Otay Mesa Property L.P. v. United States Dep't of the Interior

November 3, 2008

OTAY MESA PROPERTY L.P., ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rosemary M. Collyer United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This case involves a challenge to a final critical habitat determination by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service for the San Diego fairy shrimp (Branchinecta sandiegonensis), an endangered species which inhabits the waters in and around San Diego County, California. The Federal Defendants move to transfer the case to the Southern District of California, asserting that the interests of justice will be served best by transferring this action. In support of their motion, the Federal Defendants observe that the agency that substantially developed the final critical habitat determination at issue is located within the Southern District of California, two of the Plaintiffs reside in the Southern District of California, and all five of the critical habitat units designated for the San Diego fairy shrimp are located in southern California, four of which are located in San Diego County. Despite the location of the property at issue, the Court finds that the arguments in favor of transfer do not outweigh the deference afforded to the Plaintiffs' choice of forum, and therefore will deny the Federal Defendants' motion to transfer this case to the United States District Court for the Southern District of California.

I. BACKGROUND

The United States Department of the Interior ("DOI") is an agency of the Federal Government which is authorized to designate critical habitats for endangered species under Section 4 of the Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C. § 1533. In 1997, pursuant to this authorization, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service ("FWS"), an agency of DOI, added the San Diego fairy shrimp to the list of endangered species, see Determination of Endangered Status for the San Diego Fairy Shrimp, 62 Fed. Reg. 4925 (Feb. 3, 1997), and in 2000, the FWS designated approximately 4,000 acres in Orange and San Diego counties in California as critical habitat for the species, see Final Determination of Critical Habitat for the San Diego Fairy Shrimp, 65 Fed. Reg. 63438 (Oct. 23, 2000). Plaintiffs, Otay Mesa Property, L.P., Rancho Vista Del Mar, and Otay International, LLC, are owners of unimproved land in the Otay Mesa area of San Diego County, California. Compl. ¶¶ 1-3 [Dkt. # 1]. The 2000 final determination did not include any of Plaintiffs' land. Pls.' Opp'n to Mot. to Transfer ("Pls.' Opp'n") at 3 [Dkt. # 19].

After a challenge to the 2000 designation by the Natural Resources Defense Council in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, which FWS resolved by requesting a voluntary remand for further rulemaking, FWS published a new proposed rule designating approximately 6,000 acres as fairy shrimp habitat, see Designation of Critical Habitat for the San Diego Fairy Shrimp, 68 Fed. Reg. 19888 (Apr. 22, 2003), including about 143 acres of Plaintiffs' land. Pls.' Opp'n at 3. As of 2007, FWS had not issued a final rule, so the plaintiffs in the case pending before the Central District of California moved that court to order FWS to complete its rulemaking. Id. at 4. FWS issued its final rule on December 12, 2007, designating approximately 4,000 acres, including a portion of Plaintiffs' property, as critical habitat for the San Diego fairy shrimp. See Designation of Critical Habitat for the San Diego Fairy Shrimp, 72 Fed. Reg. 70648 (Dec. 12, 2007).

Plaintiffs' property is located along the United States-Mexican border in San Diego County, east of the city of San Diego, in a rugged and hilly coastal-mesa area, lying west of the foothills of the San Ysidro Mountains. Pls.' Opp'n at 4. Most of the area is accessible only in heavy-duty utility vehicles or on horseback, and is not accessible by public roads. Id., Ex. 2 (Wick Decl. ("Wick Decl.")) ¶ 5. The portion of Plaintiffs' property that is designated as part of the critical habitat is privately owned, unimproved land, but is zoned for light industrial use. Pls.' Opp'n at 4. The Plaintiffs together own approximately 274.55 acres, about 143 acres of which have been designated by the FWS as critical habitat for the San Diego fairy shrimp. Id. These 143 acres are included in a 391-acre area that the FWS refers to as Subunit 5D, a parcel designated by the FWS as fairy shrimp habitat. Id. at 4-5.

Plaintiffs filed their Complaint on March 3, 2008, pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. § 702 et seq., and the Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201 et seq., seeking to declare unlawful and set aside the FWS's final rule designating the critical habitat. The Federal Defendants filed a Motion to Transfer Venue to the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. See Dkt. # 13. They argue that the interests of justice will be best served by a transfer to that jurisdiction because the Carlsbad Fish and Wildlife Office in the Southern District of California substantially developed the final critical habitat determination at issue; all five of the critical habitat units designated for the San Diego fairy shrimp are located in southern California, one in Orange County, and the other four in San Diego County; and the property that Plaintiffs allege was included improperly in the final critical habitat determination is part of Subunit 5D, which is located in San Diego County. Defs.' Mem. in Support of Mot. to Transfer Venue ("Defs.' Mem.") at 1-2.

II. LEGAL STANDARDS

Section 1404(a) of Title 28 of the United States Code authorizes a court to transfer a civil action to any other district where it could have been brought "for the convenience of parties and witnesses, in the interest of justice. . . ." 28 U.S.C.§ 1404(a). The purpose of 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a) is "to prevent the waste of 'time, energy and money' and 'to protect the litigants, witnesses and the public against unnecessary inconvenience and expense.'" See Van Dusen v. Barrack, 376 U.S. 612, 616 (1964) (citation omitted). Section 1404(a) vests "discretion in the district court to adjudicate motions to transfer according to individualized, case-by-case consideration of convenience and fairness." Stewart Org., Inc. v. Ricoh Corp., 487 U.S. 22, 29 (1988) (quoting Van Dusen, 376 U.S. at 622). Under this statute, the moving party bears the burden of establishing that transfer is proper. Trout Unlimited v. Dep't. of Agric., 944 F. Supp. 13, 16 (D.D.C. 1996).

"Transfer under section 1404(a) involves a multi-part analysis: first, the court must determine that venue is proper in the transferor district; next, it must ensure both jurisdiction and venue will lie in the proposed transferee district; and finally, it must weigh several private and public interest factors to determine whether transfer would, indeed, be 'in the interest of justice.'" Elemary v. Holzmann, 533 F. Supp. 2d 144, 149 (D.D.C. 2008). The private interest considerations include: (1) the plaintiffs' 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, but only to the extent that the witnesses may actually be unavailable for trial in one of the fora; and (6) the ease of access to sources of proof. Trout Unlimited, 944 F. Supp. at 16. The public interest considerations include:

(1) the transferee court's familiarity with the governing laws; (2) the relative congestion of the calendars of the potential transferee and transferor courts; and (3) the local interest in deciding local controversies at home. Id.

III. ANALYSIS

While it is clear that jurisdiction and venue over this action are proper here, the Federal Defendants seek to have the case transferred to the Southern District of California. Because venue and jurisdiction over this action also lie in the Southern District of California, this Court must determine whether convenience and the interests of justice recommend transfer to that district. See Citizen Advocates for Responsible Expansion, Inc. v. Dole, 561 F. Supp. 1238, 1239 (D.D.C. 1983). The Court concludes that the Federal Defendants have not met their burden of showing that transfer to the Southern District of California is appropriate for convenience or fairness.

The private interest factors are of limited value in this case. The convenience factors, including convenience of the parties, the witnesses, and ease of access to sources of proof, have little, if any, impact on this case. The parties agree that there is unlikely to be any discovery or trial since this case involves judicial review of agency action that is preserved in the administrative record, and the case likely will be resolved on summary judgment on the basis of that administrative record. See Defs.' Mem. at 11; accord Pls.' Opp'n at 9-10. With respect to the parties' choices of forum, the Federal Defendants argue that the Court should give little deference to the Plaintiffs' forum choice. See Defs.' Mem. at 8-9. While a plaintiff is given its choice of forum and "a trial judge must give considerable, but not conclusive, weight to the plaintiff's initial forum choice," Pain v. United Techs. Corp., 637 F.2d 775, 783 (D.C. Cir. 1980), a Plaintiff's choice is entitled to less ...


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