Griggs v. Swift Transp. Co.
United States District Court for the District of New Jersey
August 16, 2018, Decided; August 17, 2018, Filed
Civil Action 2:17-cv-13480-MCA-SCM
2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139864 *
SHARON GRIGGS, et al., Plaintiffs, v. SWIFT TRANSPORTATION CO., INC., et al., Defendants.
OPINION ON DEFENDANT SWIFT TRANSPORTATION’S MOTION TO DISMISS FOR LACK OF PERSONAL JURISDICTION, IMPROPER VENUE, AND FORUM NON CONVENIENS, OR TRANSFER
STEVEN C. MANNION, United States Magistrate Judge.
Before this Court are Defendants Swift Transportation Co., Inc. (“Swift Transportation”) and Swift Transportation Co. of Arizona, LLC’s (“Swift Arizona”) (collectively “Swifts”) motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, improper venue, and forum non conveniens, or in the alternative for transfer pursuant to Section 1631.1 The Court has reviewed the parties’ respective submissions. [*2] For the reasons set forth herein, the Court sua sponte transfers this case to Middle District of Florida under Section 14062 and accordingly, terminates the Swifts’ motion to dismiss as MOOT.
I. BACKGROUND & PROCEDURAL HISTORY3
Plaintiffs Sharon Griggs (“Ms. Griggs”) and Hezekiah Griggs, Jr. (“Mr. Griggs”) brought this personal injury and wrongful death action against the Swifts following the death of their son, Hezekiah Griggs III (“Mr. Griggs III”).4 Ms. Griggs is a citizen of New Jersey,5 and Mr. Griggs is a citizen of North Carolina.6 According to the Complaint, Swift Transportation is a citizen of Arizona.7 Swift Arizona is also a citizen of Arizona.8
On December 22, 2016, Mr. Griggs III was driving from Jacksonville, Florida, to the Orlando Airport and stopped in a designated area.9 Kenty Verdier (“Mr. Verdier”), an employee of Swift Arizona, drove a Swift Arizona tractor-trailer10 and collided with the rental car, killing Mr. Griggs III at the scene.11 Florida authorities investigated the scene, conducted Mr. Griggs III’s autopsy, and compiled a report of the accident.12
Swift Arizona argues, among other things, that venue is improper because the Court cannot exercise personal jurisdiction over [*3] it, and because a “substantial part of the events . . . giving rise to the claim” did not occur in New Jersey.13 In response, Mr. and Ms. Griggs argue the Court may exercise personal jurisdiction over the Swifts because the Swifts are large property owners and employers in New Jersey.14
II. MAGISTRATE JUDGE AUTHORITY
Magistrate judges may decide motions to transfer because they are non-dispositive.15 The decision to grant or deny an application for transfer is discretionary.16 If a party appeals the decision, the district court must affirm the decision unless it is “clearly erroneous or contrary to law.”17
III. LEGAL STANDARD
Under our jurisprudence, Section 1391(b) governs where venue is proper and states that a party may bring a civil action in:
(1) a judicial district in which any defendant resides, if all defendants are residents of the State in which the district is located;
(2) a judicial district in which a substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to the claim occurred, or a substantial part of property that is the subject of the action is situated; or
(3) if there is no district in which an action may otherwise be brought as provided in this section, any judicial district [*4] in which any defendant is subject to the court’s personal jurisdiction with respect to such action.18
With regard to venue based on residence, a defendant resides wherever the court may exercise personal jurisdiction over the defendant.19 The plaintiff bears the burden of showing that personal jurisdiction is proper.20
Courts may exercise personal jurisdiction under the theories of general jurisdiction or specific jurisdiction.21 A defendant is subject to general jurisdiction when that defendant has “continuous and systematic” contacts in the forum state.22 When such systematic and continuous contacts are present, a court may “justify suit against [the corporation] on causes of action arising from dealings entirely distinct from those activities.”23 Courts require “extensive and persuasive” facts to establish general jurisdiction; a much higher standard than mere minimum contacts with the forum state.24 Effectively, a court must find that the corporation is “essentially at home” in the forum to justify the exercise of general jurisdiction.25 Courts have applied the Daimler rules to limited liability companies with “equal force.”26
On the other hand, a court may exercise specific [*5] jurisdiction when a plaintiff’s claim relates to, or arises out of, the defendant’s contacts with the forum.27
Under specific jurisdiction, the relevant inquiry is: (1) whether the defendant purposefully directed its activities at the forum; (2) whether the litigation arises out of or relates to at least one of the contacts; and (3) whether the exercise of jurisdiction otherwise comports with traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.28
With regard to the second element of specific jurisdiction, the relatedness requirement, the Third Circuit “held that but-for causation was a necessary requirement for establishing relatedness between a defendant’s purposeful contacts and each specific cause of action.”29 “As the name indicates, this standard is satisfied when the plaintiff’s claim would not have arisen in the absence of the defendant’s contacts,” with the chosen forum.30 But-for causation alone, however, is not sufficient to “create the required nexus between purposeful contacts and a plaintiff’s claims.”31 The causal connection must “be intimate enough to keep the quid pro quo proportional and personal jurisdiction reasonably foreseeable.”32
If the Court finds that the original [*6] venue is improper, it may either dismiss or if it is in the interest of justice, sua sponte transfer the case to a proper district.33
The Swifts argue venue is improper in this District because the Court cannot exercise general or specific jurisdiction over it, and none of the events giving rise to the claim occurred in New Jersey.34 In the alternative, Swifts contend that the Court should dismiss the case for lack of personal jurisdiction, or transfer the case to the Middle District of Florida under Section 1631.35
As a preliminary matter, courts generally consider personal jurisdiction before venue, but a “court may reverse the normal order” when the answer to the venue question “resolves” the case.36 For the reasons stated below, because the Court finds that venue is improper in this District, the Court need not address the Swifts’ motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction.
Turning then to whether venue is proper in this District, Mr. and Ms. Griggs summarily conclude that venue is proper in New Jersey because Mr. Griggs III was a New Jersey resident and Ms. Griggs, Co-Administratrix of the estate, is a New Jersey resident.37 Axiomatically, however, personal jurisdiction [*7] focuses on a defendant’s residence and activities in the forum state rather than the plaintiff’s.38 Under the venue statute,39 corporations reside “in any judicial district in which such a defendant is subject to the court’s personal jurisdiction.”40
Looking at the facts in the light most favorable to Mr. and Ms. Griggs, the Court finds that the Swifts’ activities in New Jersey are not sufficient to maintain an exercise of general jurisdiction. For a corporation or limited liability company,41 the “paradigm” for general jurisdiction is its place of incorporation or registration and its principal place of business.42 Here, Arizona is Swift Transportation’s place of incorporation and the location of its principal place of business, whereas Delaware is Swift Arizona’s place of registration, with its principal place of business in Arizona.43
Since neither paradigm applies, the Court must determine “whether [the] corporation’s affiliations with the State are so continuous and systematic as to render it essentially at home,”44 in New Jersey. Mr. and Ms. Griggs summarily conclude that the Swifts are subject to general jurisdiction in New Jersey.45 After reviewing the Complaint and briefs, the Court concludes [*8] that the Swifts are not “essentially at home” in this District.46 The Swifts’ activities within New Jersey are relatively trivial in comparison to its total operations.47 Although the Swifts maintain a facility in New Jersey48 which holds approximately 50 loading bays with 47 trailers,49 they also “operate nearly 20,000 trucks [and] has over forty full-service facilities” in other states.50 Accordingly, the Swifts are not subject to general jurisdiction in New Jersey.
Furthermore, the Court cannot conclude that specific jurisdiction exists over the Swifts. The Swifts’ “purposefully directed [their] activities at the forum”51 because the Swifts are property and business owners in New Jersey.52 Nevertheless, Mr. and Ms. Griggs fail to make a prima facie showing that the Swifts’ contacts with New Jersey were a “but-for” cause of their claims.53
They summarily conclude that specific jurisdiction exists because Mr. Verdier was transporting a motor freight on behalf of the Swifts at the time of the accident, but fail to allege any connection with New Jersey.54 It appears that their claims would have arisen even in the absence of the Swifts’ contacts in New Jersey.55 Consequently, the Court need not evaluate [*9] the last element, the fair play and substantial justice requirement.56 Taken together, venue is improper under Section 1391(b)(1) because the Court cannot exercise general or specific jurisdiction over the Swifts.57
Next, under Section 1391(b)(2), courts consider whether “a substantial part of the events . . . giving rise to the claim” occurred in the forum state.58 As discussed above, the accident occurred in Florida,59 Mr. Verdier lives in Florida,60 and the Florida authorities compiled the accident report and conducted the autopsy in Florida.61 The statutory language “favors the defendant in a venue dispute by requiring that the events or omissions supporting a claim be substantial.”62 In turn, because Mr. and Ms. Griggs fail to explain how any events that gave rise to the claim occurred in New Jersey, venue is improper in this District under Section 1391(b)(2).63
Lastly, under Section 1391(b)(3), the Court finds that venue is improper in this District because Mr. and Ms. Griggs could have originally brought the case in the Middle District of Florida since “a substantial part of the events . . . giving rising to the claim,” i.e., the accident, occurred entirely in Florida.64 Taken together, venue is improper under Section 1391(b).
This conclusion, however, does not end [*10] the Court’s analysis. The Swifts request transfer under Section 1631.65 However, courts may transfer a case pursuant to Section 1631 only when the Court finds that it “does not possess personal jurisdiction over the defendant.”66 Although the Court analyzed personal jurisdiction for the purpose of venue, the Court did not rule on personal jurisdiction. Rather, the Court found that venue is improper under Section 1391(b).
Consequently, under Section 1406(a), the Court shall dismiss the case, “or if it be in the interest of justice, transfer such case to any district or division in which it could have been brought.”67 The Court must assess whether (1) the action “could have been brought” in the Middle District of Florida; and (2) whether it is “in the interest of justice” to transfer the case there rather than dismiss it for improper venue.68 Congress enacted Section 1406(a) to “avoid the injustice which had often resulted to plaintiffs from dismissal of their actions merely because they had made an erroneous guess as to the facts underlying the choice of venue.”69 It aims “to save the parties’ time and resources” when the venue is improper.70
The Court finds that Mr. and Ms. Griggs could have brought the action in [*11] the Middle District of Florida. Because the Court has already determined that the accident giving rise to the claim occurred in the Middle District of Florida, the Court finds that the Swifts will likely be subject to personal jurisdiction in that District, and thus constitutes a proper venue.71 Rather than dismiss Mr. and Ms. Griggs’ Complaint merely because of their “counsel’s erroneous guess”72 as to proper venue, the Court finds it is in the interest of justice to transfer the case to the Middle District of Florida.73
For the foregoing reasons, the Court sua sponte transfers this case to the Middle District of Florida under Section 1406.74 Consequently, the Court terminates the Swifts’ motion to dismiss as MOOT. An appropriate order follows.
IT IS on this Thursday, August 16, 2018,
1. Ordered that the Clerk of the Court transfer this action to the Middle District of Florida; and it is further
2. Ordered that the Clerk of the Court shall terminate Swift’s motion to dismiss, (D.E. 4), as MOOT.
/s/ Steve Mannion
Honorable Steve Mannion, U.S.M.J.
United States District Court, for the District of New Jersey
8/16/2018 5:28:37 PM