Pennsylvania Supreme Court Relaxes Forum Rules on Change of Venue

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October 27, 2014

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has recently relaxed Pennsylvania’s staunch choice of forum rules to allow the trial judge greater discretion when considering various factors in deciding a forum non conveniens motion.
In Bratic v. Rubendall, 2014 WL 4064028 (Pa. 2014), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held the trial court properly transferred the case from Philadelphia to Dauphin County. What is most compelling about Bratic is the Supreme Court’s loosening of the interpretation of “vexatious and oppressive” found in Cheeseman v. Lethal Exterminator, Inc., 701 A.2d 156 (Pa. 1997).

In Bratic, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas transferred the case to Dauphin County finding that the witnesses and evidence were located in Dauphin County. Appellant/Defendants presented affidavits of seven (7) witnesses stating that if the trial were to be held in Philadelphia, it would be “both disruptive and a personal and financial hardship if the witnesses should be called to testify at deposition or trial.” Along with the disruptive nature, the trial court also reasoned that the “sole connection with Philadelphia County is the fact that all appellants occasionally conduct business in Philadelphia.” Thus, it found that the choice of forum was vexatious and oppressive. Bratic at 1.

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania reversed, holding Appellant/Defendants did not carry their burden of demonstrating vexatiousness and oppressiveness, finding the location of the appellants to be irrelevant.” Bratic v. Rubendall, 43 A.3d 497, 501 (Pa. Super. 2012 ). It further determined that the factors the trial court considered may have created an inconvenience for appellants but it did not amount to oppressiveness.

The Supreme Court disagreed, noting that while the Appellee/Plaintiff’s choice of forum is entitled weighty consideration, the trial court is vested with considerable discretion when ruling on a forum non conveniens motion. “[A] ruling on a motion to transfer must be affirmed on appeal if there exists any proper basis for the trial court’s decision.” The Supreme Court noted that the trial court properly considered the following factors:

The defendants’ affidavits, which were, in and of themselves, a proper basis for the transfer. “When the case involves a transfer from Philadelphia to a more distant county, factors such as the burden of travel, time out of the office, disruption to business operations, and the greater difficulty involved in obtaining witnesses and the sources or proof are more significant.” Bratic v. Rubendall, 2014 WL 4064028, 5.

The congestion of the court, which the Supreme Court said is not in error if “the congestion contributes to the oppressiveness of the chosen venue . . . [though] it is not a factor sufficient by itself.” Id. at 4.

The location of the plaintiffs where none of them are from Philadelphia. The Supreme Court noted “the trial court’s mere mention of these facts does not constitute an abuse of discretion or misapplication of the law, however, as it is evident from the court’s opinion that transfer was based on other enumerated factors, not the residences of appellees or counsel, nor on congestion of the courts. As with other factors not sufficient for transfer themselves, if residence is probative of oppressiveness, it is not error to reflect upon it, so long as it is not the sole reason for the judge’s decision.” Id. at 5.

The Supreme Court states:
We reaffirm the Cheeseman standard, but hold the showing of oppression needed for a judge to exercise discretion in favor of granting a forum non conveniens motion is not as severe as suggested by the Superior Court’s post-Cheeseman cases. Mere inconvenience remains insufficient, but there is no burden to show near-draconian consequences. . . . The facts of record allow the finding that trial in Philadelphia would be more than merely inconvenient. As there was clearly a proper evidentiary basis for this conclusion, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in granting the motion transferring the case to Dauphin County.

While the Bratic opinion maintains the Cheeseman criteria as the standard for assessing forum non conveniens challenges, its real import is that it recasts the standard by which the choice of forum’s “vexatiousness and oppressiveness” is to be measured.

The rule that a plaintiff’s choice of forum will be affirmed on any proper basis has been cut down by Bratic. Instead, the trial court now has more leeway to look into the facts of the case and freedom to assess whether or not a case belongs elsewhere.

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