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Amos v. Aetna Life Insurance Co.

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Eastern Division

August 12, 2019

TONY AMOS, Plaintiff,
v.
AETNA LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant.

          EDMUND A. SARGUS, JR. CHIEF JUDGE.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          CHELSEY M. VASCURA UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff, Tony Amos (“Amos”), brings this action for benefits under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. §1001, et seq., against Defendant, Aetna Life Insurance Company (“Aetna”). This matter is now before the Court on Aetna's Motion to Transfer Venue, ECF No. 6. For the reasons that follow, the Court DENIES this Motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Amos resides in Williamstown, West Virginia, directly over the border from Marietta, OHIO. Amos was formerly employed by The Chemours Company in West Virginia. Amos participated in a long-term disability (“LTD”) plan established by The Chemours Company and insured by Defendant Aetna Life Insurance Company (“Aetna”), under Group Policy Number GP-737373-GI (the “Plan”).

         As of October 2015, Amos stopped working due to physical conditions. He applied for LTD benefits with supporting medical documentation from both an Ohio and a West Virginia healthcare provider. Aetna approved the LTD benefits starting in April 2016. Amos later provided a more extensive list of his medical providers, all of whom were located throughout Ohio and West Virginia (specifically Columbus and Marietta, Ohio and Williamstown and Parkersburg, West Virginia). Amos received benefits from Aetna for the 24-month duration of the Plan's “own occupation” period. In April 2018, Aetna informed Amos that his LTD benefits were terminated going forward because he did not meet the “any occupation” definition of disability under the Plan. Within this termination letter, Aetna referenced both Ohio and West Virginia providers. Amos then timely appealed Aetna's decision. Aetna reviewed the appeal and denied it in October 2018. After exhausting his administrative remedies, Amos filed the instant action under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B), seeking benefits under the Plan. Subsequently, Aetna filed the subject Motion to Transfer Venue, seeking an order transferring this action to the Southern District of West Virginia.

         II. STANDARDS

         A motion to transfer venue is governed bv 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a), which states that “[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.” This requires a two-part analysis: (1) whether the action could have 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. Shanehchian v. Macy's, Inc., 251 F.R.D. 287, 289 (S.D. Ohio 2008). The transfer statute provides district courts with broad discretion to determine the appropriateness of transfer. Reese v. CNH Amer. LLC, 574 F.3d 315, 320 (6th Cir. 2009).

         As to part one of this §1404(a) analysis, ERISA specifically addresses where actions may be brought. Venue is appropriate in any district “where the plan is administered, where the breach took place, or where a defendant resides or may be found.” 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e)(2). This provision is written in the disjunctive; thus ERISA plaintiffs have a choice among proper venues. Shanehchian, 251 F.R.D. at 289. A defendant “resides or may be found” in any district in which its “minimum contacts” would support the exercise of personal jurisdiction. Moore v. Rohm & Haas Co., 446 F.3d 643, 646 (6th Cir. 2006). In turn, this minimum contacts standard is satisfied when a “defendant's contacts with the forum state are ‘substantial' and ‘continuous and systemic,' so that the state may exercise personal jurisdiction over the defendant even if the action does not relate to the defendant's contacts with the state.” Id. (internal citations omitted).

         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, 574 F.3d at 320. 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 Insur. Co. of N. Amer., 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)).

         The defendant as movant bears the burden of showing that transfer is appropriate. The defendant must make a strong showing of inconvenience to warrant upsetting the plaintiff's choice of forum. Shanehchian, 251 F.R.D. at 289. A showing of equal convenience (or inconvenience) between forums is not enough to obtain transfer of venue. And an ERISA plaintiff's choice of forum is generally afforded extra deference. Id. at 292 (“In light of the intent expressed in the congressional record, as interpreted uniformly in the federal courts, in favor of broad choice of venue for all ERISA plaintiffs, the plaintiff's choice of venue [must] be afforded a heightened level of deference, beyond the usual deference afforded plaintiffs under § 1404(a) analysis.”); see also 15 Wright & Miller, Fed. Prac. & Proc. Juris. § 3848 (4th ed.) (discussing how context matters in granting such extra deference and summarizing how courts have given less weight to ERISA plaintiffs' choice of forum in certain situations when (1) the case involves a class action and a majority of the potential class members are located elsewhere, (2) there is a forum selection clause involved, or (3) the plaintiff's choice of forum is not the plaintiff's home forum and there is little to no connection between the chosen forum and the case).

         III. ANALYSIS

         The Court's § 1404(a) analysis in this federal-question case boils down to a balance of the convenience and justice factors. Aetna does not assert that venue cannot lie in the Southern District of Ohio.[1] Neither does Amos contest that the Southern District of West Virginia, the district in which Amos currently lives and previously worked and received Plan benefits, is an appropriate option for venue. The only dispute is whether Aetna has adequately shown that the Southern District of West Virginia is a more appropriate choice for venue such that transfer away from this district is warranted.

         As both parties have pointed out, because this is an ERISA benefits case, Amos's action should be decided using the administrative record on which Aetna relied when it denied his claim. Wilkins v. Baptist Healthcare Sys., Inc., 150 F.3d 609, 615-16 (6th Cir. 1998). Consequently, many of the convenience and justice factors-those relating to party convenience and cost of ...


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