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Joost v. American Commercial Barge Line LLC

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana

April 8, 2019

JEREMY JOOST
v.
AMERICAN COMMERCIAL BARGE LINE LLC

         SECTION "L" (3)

          ORDER AND REASONS

          ELDON E. FALLON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court is Defendant's motion to dismiss or transfer venue. R. Doc. 5. Plaintiff opposes. R. Doc. 8. Having considered the parties' briefs and the applicable law, the Court now issues this Order and Reasons.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arises out of injuries allegedly sustained by Plaintiff Jeremy Joost in the course of his employment with American Commercial Barge Line LLC (“ACBL”). As an engineer-in-training aboard the M/V MARK STAAB, Plaintiff spent “a number of weeks” “repairing the three barrel system that breaks down everything that goes through the toilets on the vessel like a septic tank.” R. Doc. 1 at 2. Plaintiff alleges that he was continuously exposed to contaminated water during this time, and was ultimately diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis - a flesh-eating infection - as a result. He now brings claims of unseaworthiness, maintenance and cure, and Jones Acct negligence against ACBL.

         II. PRESENT MOTION

         ACBL moves the Court to dismiss this case without prejudice for improper venue under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(3) or, alternatively, to transfer this case to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, New Albany Division. After his alleged injury, Plaintiff applied for paid leave under ACBL's Pay Continuation Plan (an optional program that allows employees to receive short-term pay continuance while on approved medical leave). He signed a “Pay Continuance Form, ” which contains the following forum selection clause:

I further agree that in the event I file a claim or lawsuit against ACBL relating to the pay continuance program and/or the incident giving rise to the illness and/or injury that is the subject of my leave of absence from work, such suit will only be filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, New Albany Division and I will make no effort to have such lawsuit or claim transferred or moved to any other court.

R. Doc. 5-2 at 4. Plaintiff's application was approved by ACBL in March 2016, and he received pay continuance benefits for a total of 26 weeks.

         Accordingly, ACBL asks the Court to dismiss or transfer this action to the designated forum. Plaintiff seeks to avoid enforcement of the forum selection clause, and argues that (1) it was obtained as a result of overreaching, and (2) enforcement would contravene a strong public policy of the forum state.

         III. LAW AND ANALYSIS

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(3) authorizes dismissal “only when venue is ‘wrong' or ‘improper' in the forum in which it was brought.” Atlantic Marine Construction Company, Inc. v. United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, 571 U.S. 49. 55 (2013). “Whether venue is ‘wrong' or ‘improper' depends exclusively on whether the court in which the case was brought satisfies the requirements of federal venue laws, ” and a forum selection clause has no bearing on this analysis. Id.

         Because the forum selection clause does not render venue in this Court “wrong” or “improper” under Rule 12(b)(3), “the proper mechanism for enforcing [it] is a motion to transfer venue under 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). Weber v. PACTR XPP Technologies, AG, 811 F.3d 758, 766 (5th Cir. 2016) (citing Atlantic Marine). § 1404(a) allows a court to transfer a case to another district “for the convenience of the parties and witnesses, and in the interest of justice.” In the typical case, the court “must determine whether there is an adequate alternative forum and, if so, decide which forum is best-suited to the litigation by considering a variety of private- and public-interest factors and giving deference to the plaintiff's choice of forum.” Barnett v. DynCorp Int'l, L.L.C., 831 F.3d 296, 300 (5th Cir. 2016).[1]

         A valid and enforceable forum selection clause, however, alters the § 1404(a) analysis in two important ways: (1) “the plaintiff's choice of forum merits no weight, ” and (2) the court “must deem the private-interest factors to weigh entirely in favor of the preselected forum” and “may consider arguments about public-interest factors only.” Atlantic Marine, 571 U.S. at 64. Because the public-interest factors “will rarely defeat a transfer motion, the practical result is that forum-selection clauses should control except in unusual cases.” Id. Indeed, forum selection clauses are “given controlling weight in all but the most exceptional cases, ” Stewart Org. Inc. v. Ricoh ...


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