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Gonce v. The Prudential Insurance Co. of America

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

October 31, 2018


          OPINION & ORDER


         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Prudential Insurance Company of America's (“Prudential”) Motion to Transfer Venue to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee. (ECF No. 3). The Court declined to hear oral argument pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 78, and, for the reasons set forth below, Defendant's Motion is GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This ERISA action arises from Prudential's denial of long-term disability benefits under an employee benefit plan issued by Plaintiff's employer, Sprint Nextel Corporation (“Sprint”). Plaintiff Westley Gonce, who resides and worked in Tennessee, was a full-time Sprint employee until he allegedly became disabled on September 12, 2012. (Compl. ¶¶ 16, 19). Plaintiff was a covered beneficiary under a long-term disability benefit plan (“the Plan”) sponsored by Sprint. (Id. ¶¶ 8-9). After receiving short-term disability benefits, Plaintiff filed for long-term disability benefits under the Plan. (Id. ¶ 22). Prudential denied Plaintiff long-term disability benefits on August 25, 2016. (Id. ¶ 23). Plaintiff exhausted his administrative remedies, which resulted in Prudential upholding the denial. (Id. ¶¶ 26, 27, 43). Plaintiff then brought this action, alleging that Prudential wrongfully denied him benefits in violation of ERISA and the Plan. (Id. ¶ 66).

         On July 6, 2018, Defendant filed its Motion to transfer this case to the Eastern District of Tennessee. (ECF No. 3). Defendant argues that the Eastern District of Tennessee is the proper venue because Plaintiff lived, worked, and received medical treatment in Tennessee, and very few of the operative facts occurred in New Jersey. Plaintiff filed his Opposition on July 23, 2018. (ECF No. 7). According to Plaintiff, Defendant has not met its burden for demonstrating that transfer is convenient and in the interest of justice. On July 30, 2018, Prudential filed its Reply. (ECF No. 8).


         Under 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a), “[f]or the convenience of parties and witnesses, in the interest of justice, a district court may transfer any civil action to any other district or division where it might have been brought[.]” Section 1404(a) gives district courts discretion to transfer cases initially brought in the proper venue to alternative venues after conducting an “individualized, case-by-case” analysis. 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a); Van Dusen v. Barrack, 376 U.S. 612, 616, 622 (1964); Jumara, 55 F.3d at 883; Cadapult Graphic Sys., Inc. v. Tektronix, Inc., 98 F.Supp.2d 560, 564 (D.N.J. 2000). The party seeking transfer “bears the burden of establishing that the transfer is appropriate and must establish that the alternative forum is more convenient than the present forum.” Santi v. Nat'l Bus. Records Mgmt., LLC, 772 F.Supp.2d 602, 606 (D.N.J. 2010).

         Section 1404(a) requires a two step inquiry to determine whether transfer is appropriate. First, the Court must determine if plaintiff could have originally brought suit in the proposed forum. Ragner Tech. Corp. v. Berardi, 287 F.Supp.3d 541, 547 (D.N.J. 2018). If venue is proper in the transferee forum, the Court then looks to “whether the transfer would be in the interest of justice and for the convenience of parties and witnesses.” Jumara v. State Farm Ins. Co., 55 F.3d 873, 879 (3d Cir. 1995). In Jumara, the Third Circuit articulated a multifactor test that balances public and private interest factors to determine if transfer is appropriate.[1] 55 F.3d at 879-90. The balancing of these factors is discretionary. Piper Aircraft Co. v. Reyno, 454 U.S. 235, 257 (1981). There is “no definitive formula [as] courts have considered many variants of the . . . interests protected by the language of § 1404(a).” Jumara, 55 F.3d at 879.


         The Court finds that it is appropriate to exercise its discretion under Section 1404(a) to grant Defendant's Motion. First, under the ERISA venue statute, venue is proper in the Eastern District of Tennessee. Second, the Jumara factors weigh in favor of transferring this matter to the Eastern District of Tennessee.


         As a threshold matter, the Court must determine whether “venue and personal jurisdiction are proper” in the Eastern District of Tennessee. Ragner, 287 F.Supp.3d at 547. The ERISA statute provides that actions “may be brought in [1] the district where the plan is administered, [2] where the breach took place, or [3] where defendant resides or may be found.” 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e)(2). Here, Defendant claims that venue is proper in the Eastern District of Tennessee because the alleged breach of the Plan took place in Tennessee, which is where Plaintiff would have received long term disability benefits. (Def.'s Br., ECF No. 3-1, at p. 4-5).

         Courts in this District have taken different approaches to determining “where the breach took place” under the ERISA venue provision. In Moore v. St. Paul Companies, Inc., the Court found that for venue purposes, the location of the breach depends on its nature. Where, as here, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant breached the Plan by denying benefits, the breach takes place where the plaintiff lives and would have received those benefits. No. CIV. A. 94-1329, 1995 WL 11187, at *6 (D.N.J. Jan. 3, 1995); see also Schwartz v. Employee Benefit Mgmt. Sys., No. CV17656SDWLDW, 2017 WL 2119446, at *2 (D.N.J. May 16, 2017) (noting that New Jersey was an improper venue under Moore because “the alleged breach is based on an improper denial of benefits” and Plaintiff lived in Montana). By contrast, alleged breaches that stem from the internal administration of ERISA plans, such as the mismanagement of plan assets, “take place” where defendants make plan decisions. Id.

         In Tyson v. Pitney-Bowes Long-Term Disability Plan, the Court implicitly rejected Moore's distinction and found that the breach of the Plan took place “where the decision to terminate [Plaintiff's] benefits was made, ” which was the Connecticut office of the Defendant's employment benefits committee. No. CIV.A.07CV3105(DMC), 2007 WL 4365332, at *3 (D.N.J. Dec. 11, 2007) (citing Mem'l Hermann Hosp. Sys. v. Boyd Gaming Corp. Percs Plan, No. CIV. H-06-3570, 2007 WL 624334, at *1 (S.D. Tex. Feb. 22, 2007)); see also Plastic Surgery Ctr. V. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, No. 3:13-CV-02536 FLW, 2013 WL 5773120, at *3 (D.N.J. Oct. 23, 2013) (relying on Tyson to conclude that breach of the ERISA plan took place in Michigan, where Defendant decided to terminate Plaintiff's benefits). In ...

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