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Moyal Aircraft, LLC v. Eckhart Helicopter Sales

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY


February 11, 2004

MOYAL AIRCRAFT, LLC, PLAINTIFF
v.
ECKHART HELICOPTER SALES; GEISINGER HEALTH SYSTEM *FN1 ; AND KEYSTONE HELICOPTER SERVICES, DEFENDANTS

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Debevoise, Senior District Judge

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Defendant Geisinger Health System Foundation ("Geisinger") has moved for a transfer of the case to the Middle District of Pennsylvania under 28 U.S.C. § 1404. Defendant Keystone Helicopter Services has cross moved for a transfer to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, also under § 1404. Plaintiff Moyal Aircraft ("Moyal") opposes both motions, as does Defendant Eckhart Helicopter Sales ("Eckhart"). Because neither the convenience of the parties and prospective witnesses nor the interests of the judicial system significantly favor transfer, the motions will be denied.

BACKGROUND

This action was commenced by the filing of a Complaint in New Jersey Superior Court on June 2, 2003; the case was removed by Geisinger to this Court by a notice of removal filed July 22, 2003. Plaintiff's claims arise from its purchase of a helicopter from Geisinger. The Complaint alleges that Geisinger and Eckhart, which brokered the transaction, misrepresented the age of the helicopter; and it alleges that Geisinger breached its contract of sale (the "Purchase Agreement") by delivering a helicopter two years older than the one Plaintiff had agreed to buy. Plaintiff also claims that Keystone was negligent in performing inspections it was hired to complete in connection with the sale.

Plaintiff is a North Carolina Corporation with its principal place of business in New York. Geisinger is a Pennsylvania not-for-profit corporation with its principal place of business in Danville, Pennsylvania (in the Middle District of Pennsylvania). Keystone is a Pennsylvania corporation with its principal place of business in West Chester, Pennsylvania (in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania). Eckhart is an Illinois corporation with its principal place of business in Illinois. The misrepresentations on which Plaintiff's claims against Geisinger are based took place in negotiations involving Geisinger personnel located in Danville, Pennsylvania. The delivery of the helicopter took place at Keystone's facility in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where Keystone's inspection was performed. The Purchase Agreement specifies that it is to be construed and that performance under it is to be determined under Pennsylvania law.

Judging principally from the parties' initial disclosures, witnesses whose testimony may be required and documents relating to the case are located mainly at or near the various principal places of business of the parties. The helicopter itself and its logbooks are located in New Jersey (although according to Geisinger there is some chance it will be sold and moved elsewhere). In support of its motion for transfer, Geisinger notes that many of the potential witnesses who are its employees live and work in the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Similarly Keystone emphasizes that the potential witnesses among its employees are located in the Eastern District. Moyal's list of witnesses includes its owner, David Moyal, who is located in New York, along with one witness each from New Jersey, Florida, and Pennsylvania. Eckhart's disclosure includes two witnesses from Illinois (Barry Desfor, the publisher of the "Official Helicopter Blue Book" on the value of helicopters); Edward Eckhart (the President of Trevor Corporation d/b/a Eckhart *fn2 ); and one witness from Florida.

DISCUSSION

Because neither proposed transfer offers the prospect of an overall gain in convenience or efficiency - for parties, for witnesses, or for the courts - the motions for transfer must be denied.

"The decision whether to transfer falls in the sound discretion of the trial court." Park Inn Intern., L.L.C. v. Mody Enterprises, Inc., 105 F. Supp. 2d 370, 377 (D.N.J. 2000) (citing Lony v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., 886 F.2d 628, 631-32 (3d Cir. 1989)). The exercise of the courts discretion is governed by two groups of factors: "those relating to the private convenience of the litigants and those affecting the public interest in the fair and efficient administration of justice." Park Inn, 105 F. Supp. 2d at 377 (citing Jumara v. State Farm Ins. Co., 55 F.3d 873, 879-80 (3d Cir. 1995)). The private interests considered include

(1) the "plaintiff's forum preference," (2) "the defendant's preference," (3) "whether the claim arose elsewhere," (4) "the convenience of the parties as indicated by their relative physical and financial condition," (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 location of books and records (similarly limited to the extent that the files could not be produced in the alternative forum)."

Park Inn, 105 F. Supp. 2d at 377 (quoting Jumara, 55 F.3d at 879). The public interests are

(1) "the enforceability of the judgment," (2) "practical considerations that could make the trial easy, expeditious, or inexpensive," (3) the relative administrative difficulty in the two fora resulting from court congestion, (4) "the local interest in deciding local controversies at home," (5) "the public policies of the fora," and (6) "the familiarity of the trial judge with the applicable state law in diversity cases."

Park Inn, 105 F. Supp. 2d at 377 (quoting Jumara, 55 F.3d at 879-80). A plaintiff's choice of forum is generally given great weight in the transfer analysis, and "unless the balance is strongly tipped in favor of the defendant, the plaintiff's choice of forum should not be disturbed," Gulf Oil Corp. v. Gilbert, 330 U.S. 501, 508 (1947). However, less weight is given to the plaintiff's choice when he or she does not choose a home forum, or when he or she chooses a forum that has little or no connection to the events that give rise to the case. See Rappaport v. Steven Spielberg, Inc., 16 F. Supp. 2d 481, 499-500 (D.N.J. 1998) ("One situation where deference is curbed is when the choice of forum by a plaintiff has little connection with the operative facts of the lawsuit.").

In this case the relevant private factors do not favor transfer, either to the Middle District of Pennsylvania or to the Eastern District. Although this is not Moyal's home forum, and although its claims could not fairly be said to have arisen in this district, its preference for this forum must nevertheless be afforded some weight in the analysis; and the proximity of the Court to Moyal's New York office, along with presence of the helicopter and its records in New Jersey, provides at least some basis for Moyal's objection to transfer. Accordingly, some substantial showing of greater convenience in an alternative forum must be made for Plaintiff's choice of forum to be disturbed. The Defendants' preferences are divided, with one opposing transfer and the two in favor proposing different districts.

It does not appear that either proposed transfer would enlarge the parties' access to relevant testimony or documents. Neither Geisinger nor Keystone has identified any unwilling witnesses, and certainly none who would be within the subpoena power of either proposed district court in Pennsylvania. The witnesses in the parties' disclosures who are not clearly connected with parties (and whose presence, therefore, might have to be compelled separately), do not live in Pennsylvania. The witnesses Geisinger and Keystone emphasize are all apparently their employees, and it must therefore be presumed that those witnesses can and will appear (though perhaps grudgingly) even if the case is litigated here. Similarly, it does not appear that there are any relevant documents in Pennsylvania that are not within the parties' control and could not readily be produced if requested.

To the extent that the convenience of willing witnesses and the location of the parties' documents are relevant to the analysis, it does not appear that transfer to either proposed district would provide a net gain in the convenience or efficiency with which the case could be litigated. Newark, New Jersey is clearly more convenient than any proposed location in Pennsylvania for any New Jersey witness (Moyal has identified one) and for any witness located at Moyal's principal place of business in New York. Given that it is served by a major airport, Newark is also clearly at least as convenient as either proposed transferee district for witnesses coming from Illinois or Florida. Geisinger and Keystone argue that the case must be transferred so that their employee witnesses can testify with minimal disruption of their work. But transfer would apparently do little more than shift the comparatively slight burden of traveling to testify at trial from some witnesses to others, with little or nothing gained in overall efficiency. It is not even clear that Keystone's convenience or that of its employee witnesses would be served by a transfer to Geisinger's preferred alternative venue, or vice versa. (It should also be noted that witnesses' schedules will be somewhat disrupted even if they testify close to home.) At least some of the relevant documents in the case are located in New Jersey, and it does not appear that the job of transporting any other necessary documents to New Jersey will represent a significant burden for any party.

Eckhart, in its objection to transfer, notes that the litigation has already progressed at least to some extent here and that it would have to obtain new local counsel if the case were transferred. The same would presumably be true of Moyal. (Keystone and Geisinger presumably already have, or could easily obtain, Pennsylvania based attorneys.) The need for at least some of the parties to obtain new counsel weighs against transfer.

The public interest factors also do not favor transfer. The enforceability of any judgment is not at issue, nor are the public policies of the possible fora. None of the parties has presented any argument relating to the workloads of the courts involved. Geisinger and Keystone note that New Jersey has a slight connection if any to the events that gave rise to Plaintiff's claims, and that New Jersey's interest in deciding the controversy is therefore not as substantial as Pennsylvania's; they also contend that Pennsylvania law will apply to Plaintiff's claims, and that a Pennsylvania court will therefore be better prepared to handle the case. To be sure, New Jersey's connection to the parties and to the events underlying the case does not seem to match Pennsylvania's; but the operation of the helicopter in New Jersey does represent at least some connection with the parties. As for the Court's familiarity with applicable law, even though Pennsylvania law would appear to govern any claims under the Purchase Agreement, it may not govern Plaintiff's tort claims, notably those based on alleged misrepresentations by Geisinger and Eckhart; even assuming that Pennsylvania law applies to all the issues involved in the case, the superior familiarity of Pennsylvania courts with that law does not weigh heavily in favor of transfer: federal courts in New Jersey are not by any means entirely unfamiliar with Pennsylvania law.

As the discussion of private interest factors above in part reveals, practical considerations do not favor transfer. Neither Geisinger nor Keystone has shown decisively that the case could be litigated more easily in either of their alternative districts than it could be here. Notably, the motions by Geisinger and Keystone come after the case has been under way for some time, and a transfer at this stage would almost certainly result in at least some duplication of efforts by new attorneys and the transferee court as they familiarize themselves with the case.

CONCLUSION

For the reasons stated above, the motion by Geisinger for transfer of the action to the Middle District of Pennsylvania and the motion by Keystone for transfer to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania will both be denied. An appropriate order will be entered.


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