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Flatt v. Aspen Dental Management, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Eastern Division

November 15, 2019

ERNEST FLATT, Plaintiff,
ASPEN DENTAL MANAGEMENT, INC., et al., Defendants.



         Plaintiff, Ernest Flatt (“Flatt”), brings this action for discrimination and wrongful termination under Ohio law against Defendants, Aspen Dental Management, Inc. (“Aspen”) and Dr. John W. Ihnen (“Ihnen”). This matter is now before the Court on Aspen's Motion to Transfer Venue, ECF No. 13, and the parties' related memoranda. For the reasons that follow, the Court GRANTS this Motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Aspen is a business management company for dental offices across the United States. Aspen is a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in East Syracuse, New York. On June 21, 2010, Aspen hired Flatt as a Lab Technician in Ohio. Though Flatt was originally hired as an hourly employee in a fixed location, he became a salaried employee with job titles and travel responsibilities that evolved throughout his employment with Aspen. Most recently, Flatt was employed as a Territory Manager of Lab Support assigned to the Kentucky Territory, with responsibility for providing laboratory support to nineteen offices in Kentucky and two offices in West Virginia. Regardless of his changing positions with Aspen, Flatt always remained domiciled in Ohio.

         Ihnen is a dentist who lives and works in the Louisville, Kentucky area. Ihnen owns, in whole or in part, twelve of the nineteen Kentucky dental offices that were under Flatt's responsibility. One of these locations in Louisville, known as the “Dixie Office, ” lies at the heart of the parties' dispute.

         On July 11, 2018, Ihnen informed Flatt that he was no longer welcome to work in his Kentucky offices. On July 12, 2018, Aspen terminated Flatt's employment. Flatt initiated the instant action in the Court of Common Pleas for Franklin County, Ohio. (ECF No. 2.) Aspen then removed the action to federal court based on diversity jurisdiction. (ECF No. 1.) Subsequently, in May 2019, Aspen filed the subject Motion to Transfer Venue, seeking an order transferring this action to the Western District of Kentucky, Louisville Division. (ECF No. 13.)

         II. STANDARDS

         The Court's authority to transfer venue lies in multiple statutes, including 28 U.S.C. §§ 1404(a), 1406(a), and 1631. Under § 1404(a), when “[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 where it might have been brought.” Section 1404(a) presupposes that venue is proper in the original forum. Elcheikhali v. Geico Ins. Co., No. 1:09 CV 2434, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3857, at *4-5 (N.D. Ohio Jan. 19, 2010) (“The purpose of the provision is to transfer actions brought in a permissible yet inconvenient forum.”) (emphasis in original) (relying on Martin v. Stokes, 623 F.2d 469, 471 (6th Cir. 1980)). When venue is improper in the original forum, § 1406(a) enables a district court, in lieu of dismissal, to transfer venue “if it be in the interest of justice . . . to any district or division in which it could have been brought.” Id. A similar provision in § 1631 authorizes a district court to transfer a case to an appropriate district, “in the interest of justice, ” when the court finds “a want of jurisdiction.” Stanifer v. Brannan, 564 F.3d 455, 456-457 (6th Cir. 2009). The Sixth Circuit interprets “jurisdiction” to include both subject matter and personal jurisdiction. Jackson v. L&F Martin Landscape, 421 Fed.Appx. 482, 483 (6th Cir. 2009). These venue statutes confer broad discretion to district courts ruling on a motion to transfer. Id. at 483-84.

         Aspen has moved for transfer under § 1404(a).[1] As the movant, Aspen bears the burden of showing that transfer is appropriate. Inter-National Found. Corp. v. Disney 1999 Ltd. P'ship, No. 2:09-cv-983, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 138283, *5 (S.D. Ohio Apr. 9, 2010). Deciding this Motion requires a two-step analysis by the Court: (1) whether the action could have initially been brought in the court where transfer is sought and, if so, (2) whether transfer is appropriate under a balance of convenience and justice factors. Badger v. Speedway, LLC, No. 3:14-cv-7, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 184426, *2-3 (S.D. Ohio Dec. 5, 2014). Part one of this § 1404(a) analysis is satisfied if: (1) the transferee court has jurisdiction over the subject matter of the action; (2) venue is proper in the transferee court; and (3) the defendants are amenable to process issuing out of the transferee court. Sky Tech. Partners, LLC v. Midwest Research Inst., 125 F.Supp.2d 286, 291 (S.D. Ohio 2000).

         In resolving part two of this § 1404(a) analysis, a district court evaluates various private-interest factors (which have been recited in a number of ways), including: (1) the convenience of the parties and witnesses, (2) the accessibility of the evidence, (3) the availability of compulsory process, (4) the cost of obtaining willing witnesses, (5) the practical problems of trying the case most expeditiously and inexpensively, and (6) the interests of justice. Reese v. CNH Am. LLC, 574 F.3d 315, 320 (6th Cir. 2009). Courts may also consider public-interest factors such as (1) court congestion, (2) local interest in deciding the controversy at home, and (3) in diversity cases, the interest of conducting the trial in the forum of the governing law. Youngblood v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am., No. 3:16-CV-34-TBR, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50081, *2-3 (W.D. Ky. 2016) (citing Atl. Marine Constr. Co. v. U.S. Dist. Ct. for W. Dist. of Tex., 134 S.Ct. 568, 581 (2013)). Ultimately, the transfer statute provides district courts with broad discretion to determine the appropriateness of transfer on an individualized, case-by-case basis. Reese, 574 F.3d at 320; Inter-National Found. Corp., 2010 U.S. Dist LEXIS 138283, at *5.

         III. ANALYSIS

         The Court's analysis in this diversity case boils down to a balance of convenience and justice factors. The Court finds merit in Aspen's showing of jurisdiction and venue for the proposed transferee court. (ECF No. 13, PAGEID # 79-80; 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b)(2).) Significantly, Flatt acknowledges that he could have filed his claims in the Western District of Kentucky. (ECF No. 14, PAGEID # 99.) Thus, the only dispute among the parties is whether Aspen has adequately shown that the Western District of Kentucky, Louisville Division is a more appropriate choice for venue such that transfer away from this district is warranted.

         A. Court's Sua Sponte Consideration of Transfer Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1406(a) and 1631 for Lack of Personal Jurisdiction

         The Court would be remiss if it proceeded with its § 1404(a) analysis and overlooked the outstanding question of personal jurisdiction over Defendant Ihnen. Defendants have made it abundantly clear that if the instant motion is denied they will be filing a motion to dismiss the claims against Ihnen for lack of personal jurisdiction in Ohio. All of the evidence before this Court shows that Defendants would be justified in seeking such dismissal.

         If this Court lacks personal jurisdiction over Ihnen then it cannot grant transfer pursuant to § 1404(a). The Sixth Circuit has specifically limited § 1404(a) transfers to “actions commenced in a district court where both personal jurisdiction and venue are proper.” Newberry v. Silverman, 789 F.3d 636, 641 (6th Cir. 2015); Jackson, 421 Fed.Appx. at 483 (“[A] transfer under section 1404(a) may not be granted when the district court does not have personal jurisdiction over the defendants.”). Though no party has raised this issue, federal courts have the power to transfer cases sua sponte under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1406(a) and 1631. Flynn v. Greg Anthony Constr. Co., 95 Fed.Appx. 726, 738 (6th Cir. 2003); Krawec v. Allegany Co-op Ins. Co., No. 1:08-CV-2124, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 57792, *10-11 (N.D. Ohio July 7, 2009); see, e.g., Elcheikhali, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3857, at *10-11, 14-15 (denying the defendant's pending § 1404(a) motion and instead transferring on own accord pursuant to § 1406(a) due to finding lack of personal jurisdiction); Jones v. Herbert Kannegiesser GmbH, No. 5:06-cv-39, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 81251, *7-8 (W.D. Mich. Nov. 7, 2006) (noting the mandatory cast of § 1631's instructions when denying the defendant's motion to dismiss and instead sua sponte ordering transfer under § 1631 to cure possible jurisdictional defect).

         Therefore, this Court must ascertain whether it can exercise personal jurisdiction over Ihnen before it can determine whether and on what basis transfer is appropriate.[2]

         1. Personal ...

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