Companies finding themselves in the unenviable, but increasingly common, position of being named as class action defendants have a new arrow in their defense-strategy quivers, namely, a change in scenery to a more amenable venue, despite the plaintiff’s choice of forum.
The Northern District of Illinois recently issued a decision highlighting a class action defendant’s ability to transfer venue based on the convenience of the parties. In Sickman v. Asset Recovery Solutions, LLC, 2015 WL 1911431 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 27, 2015), a San Antonio, Texas, resident filed a one-count putative class action complaint in Chicago against defendant, Asset Recovery Solutions, LLC (Asset), for alleged violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practice Act (FDCPA). The plaintiff alleged that Asset mailed him a letter seeking to collect a debt and that the envelope containing the letter displayed the plaintiff’s account number and Asset’s name through a transparent window, in violation of the FDCPA. Asset sought a transfer of venue from the Northern District of Illinois to the Western District of Texas, a less plaintiff-friendly arena. Although Asset’s principal place of business was in Illinois, the plaintiff and the 40 putative class members that he sought to represent all resided in Texas.
In considering whether transfer is appropriate, courts must consider both private and public interests. To determine whether a transfer is in the private interest of the parties, the Sickman court enumerated five factors for consideration: (1) the plaintiff’s choice of forum; (2) the situs of material events; (3) the relative ease of access to sources of proof; (4) the convenience of the parties; and (5) the convenience of the witnesses. Notably, and to the defendant’s benefit, the court gave little deference to the plaintiff’s choice of forum. It reasoned that, because the Northern District of Illinois lacks significant contacts with the cause of action and is not the plaintiff’s home forum, the plaintiff’s choice was of minor consequence. The court then found that the fifth factor, convenience of the witnesses, was irrelevant because neither party had identified any potential witnesses.
The remaining three factors, however, all weighed in favor of transfer. The court stated that the place where the plaintiff and class members actually received the letters (Texas) and not the place where the letters originated (Illinois) was the situs of material events. The letters were also the only relevant documents in the case, and all of the letters resided with the plaintiff and other potential class members in Texas. Finally, the court considered the convenience of the putative class members to litigate the case. Although the named plaintiff, of course, affirmed that he was willing to travel to Illinois, the 40 other class members had not. The court ultimately concluded that the best interest of the parties would be served by transferring the case to the Western District of Texas.
Although the Sickman court primarily focused on private-interest factors in reaching this conclusion, the court did not neglect the relevant public-interest factors, including: (1) the relation of the community to the occurrence at issue in the litigation and the desirability of resolving the controversies in their locale; (2) the court’s familiarity with the applicable law; and (3) the congestion of respective court dockets and the prospect for earlier trial. Again, the court found that these factors weighed in favor of Texas. It reasoned that, although Illinois has an interest in regulating the behavior of debt collectors within its borders, the material events of the cause of action occurred in Texas, a venue in which the plaintiff was likely to achieve a speedier resolution of his claim.
The Sickman case is no anomaly. On July 1, 2015, in the context of a Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) class action case, the Northern District of Illinois issued another opinion, Camarena v. Vanderbilt Mortgage and Fin., Inc., 2015 WL 4036258 (N.D. Ill. July 1, 2015), granting a transfer of venue from the California plaintiff’s chosen forum, Illinois, to the defendant’s home state, Tennessee. The Camarena court engaged in the same analysis as the Sickman court, rejecting the plaintiff’s “bald assertion” that it was likely that many class members resided in Illinois. It thus gave little deference to the plaintiff’s choice of venue.
The courts’ reasoning in Sickman and Camarena can be applied more broadly to suggest that class action defendants finding themselves in unfriendly venues are not necessarily doomed to litigate there. The courts gave little deference to the plaintiffs’ choices of venue, instead focusing on where the material events took place and where the class members actually resided. The take-away is that if a class action defendant finds itself in an unfriendly jurisdiction, it should evaluate the plaintiff’s and putative class members’ forum to determine if a transfer of venue is in its best interest. For example, if a TCPA class action defendant finds itself defending a class action in the Second, Fifth, Seventh, Ninth or Eleventh Circuits, a transfer to an alternate venue could provide the defendant with an opportunity to make a complete offer of relief under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68 to quickly and efficiently render the case moot. Considering the high stakes at play in class action litigations, a venue-transfer motion is a tool that no defendant should ignore.