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Ngonga v. Sessions

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 25, 2018

ERNEST NGONGA, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
JEFFERSON B. SESSIONS III, Attorney General for the United States, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JAMES E. BOASBERG UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiffs Ernest Ngonga and Danny Fokou, a married couple residing in Lovettsville, Virginia, seek a reversal of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services' Washington Field Office's denial of Ngonga's visa petition on behalf of Fokou. When the Field Office Director determined that Fokou's prior marriage had been entered into for the purposes of obtaining an immigration benefit, she denied Ngonga's Form I-130 (Petition for Alien Relative), a decision later affirmed by the Board of Immigration Appeals. See Compl., ¶¶ 1-2. Plaintiffs responded by filing this suit in December 2017, contending that such denial was arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, and unsupported by “substantial and probative evidence” of marriage fraud. Id., ¶ 1. Defendants - the Attorney General, the Washington Field Office Director, the District Director of the Department of Homeland Security for that Field Office, the Secretary of DHS, and the Director of USCIS - now move to transfer this case to the Eastern District of Virginia. As the relevant factors favor transfer, the Court will grant Defendants' Motion.

         I. Background

         According to the Complaint and its attached exhibit, Plaintiffs Danny Fokou, a native and citizen of Cameroon, and Ernest Ngonga, a lawful permanent resident of the United States, are a married couple with three children who live in Lovettsville, Virginia. See Compl., ¶ 12. Fokou was previously married to Valery Keyi, a naturalized United States citizen and native of Cameroon. Id., ¶ 14; ECF No. 1-2 (Petition Decisions) at 7. At the time of her marriage to Keyi in May 2008, Fokou was pregnant with Ngonga's second child. See Compl., ¶ 14. After Keyi filed and subsequently withdrew an I-130 Petition for Fokou in 2009, she was temporarily placed in removal proceedings. See Petition Decisions at 9. Keyi and Fokou divorced in July 2010, and Plaintiffs married that September. Id.

         Ngonga then filed an I-130 Petition on behalf of Fokou in December 2010, seeking to have her “classified as the spouse of a lawful permanent resident under section 203(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.” Id. at 5, 9. In USCIS's evaluation of this application, it discovered Fokou's prior marriage to Keyi. Although Plaintiffs maintain that that marriage was “bona fide” and “for love, [and] for no other reason, ” Compl., ¶ 14, Kimberly Zanotti, the USCIS Washington Field Office Director, apparently saw it differently. Citing Ngonga's statement in his 2014 naturalization interview that Fokou had married Keyi for immigration purposes, as well as discrepancies in Keyi's withdrawn I-130 Petition and purported irregularities in Fokou and Keyi's marriage, Zanotti determined that the marriage was “entered into . . . for the sole purpose of circumventing immigration laws of the United States.” Petition Decisions at 10. Ngonga's I-130 Petition was consequently denied on June 2, 2017, pursuant to Section 204(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which forecloses benefits if an “alien has attempted or conspired to enter into marriage for the purpose of evading the immigration laws.” 8 U.S.C. § 1154(c); see also Petition Decisions at 10. This decision was upheld some five months later by the BIA in Falls Church, Virginia. See Petition Decisions at 2.

         Plaintiffs subsequently brought this suit in December 2017, claiming that the denial of the I-130 Petition was arbitrary and capricious and therefore in contravention of the Administrative Procedure Act. See Compl., ¶ 1. Contending that the Petition was instead “supported by overwhelming evidence demonstrating the bona fide nature of the Plaintiffs' marriage” and that “the evidentiary record does not support USCIS's allegation of prior marriage fraud, ” they challenge Defendants' application of Section 204(c) of the INA and seek a reversal of the denial of the I-130 Petition. Id., ¶¶ 1-3. Defendants now move to transfer the case to the Eastern District of Virginia.

         II. Legal Standard

         Even if a plaintiff has brought its case in a proper venue, a district court may, “[f]or the convenience of parties and witnesses, in the interests of justice . . . transfer [it] . . . to any other district . . . where [the case] might have been brought.” 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). District courts have “discretion . . . to adjudicate motions for transfer according to an ‘individualized, case-by-case consideration of convenience and fairness.'” Stewart Org., Inc. v. Ricoh Corp., 487 U.S. 22, 29 (1988) (quoting Van Dusen v. Barrack, 376 U.S. 612, 622 (1964)).

         This Court has previously explained the standard for a transfer of venue under § 1404(a):

To warrant transfer under § 1404(a), the movant must first show that the plaintiff could originally have brought the case in the transferee district. Treppel v. Reason, 793 F.Supp.2d 429, 435 (D.D.C. 2011). The movant must also show that “considerations of convenience and the interest of justice weigh in favor of transfer . . . .” Sierra Club v. Flowers, 276 F.Supp.2d 62, 65 (D.D.C. 2003). This second inquiry “calls on the district court to weigh in the balance a number of case-specific factors, ” related to both the public and private interests at stake. Stewart Org., 487 U.S. at 29. The burden is on the moving party to establish that transfer is proper. Trout Unlimited v. U.S. Dep't of Agric., 944 F.Supp. 13, 16 (D.D.C. 1996).

Douglas v. Chariots for Hire, 918 F.Supp.2d 24, 31 (D.D.C. 2013). Although Plaintiffs and Defendants disagree about whether venue is proper in this District, the Court need not wade into that controversy today. Instead, it will proceed with the § 1404(a) transfer framework outlined above, first examining whether this case could have been brought in the Eastern District of Virginia and next looking at the private- and public-interest factors relevant to transfer.

         III. Analysis

         A. Propriety of New Venue

         As Plaintiffs have filed suit against federal officers and employees acting in their official capacity, venue is governed by 28 U.S.C. § 1391(e). Under that section, venue is proper in any district in which “(A) a defendant in the action resides, (B) a substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to the claim occurred . . .[, ] or (C) the plaintiff resides if no real property is involved in the action.” As Plaintiffs currently reside in Lovettsville, ...


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