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Cranford v. Tennessee Steel Haulers, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

July 20, 2018

SEAN CRANFORD, Plaintiff,
v.
TENNESSEE STEEL HAULERS, INC. et al. Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ELLEN L. HOLLANDER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Sean Cranford, plaintiff, filed suit against defendants Leslie Austin and Tennessee Steel Haulers, Inc. (“TSH”) on September 18, 2017. See ECF 1 (Complaint). He alleges that on February 8, 2016, in Fairfax County, Virginia, Austin negligently operated a vehicle for TSH and collided with plaintiff's vehicle. Id. ¶¶ 5-7, 10-11. Cranford asserts one claim of negligence against Austin, one claim of vicarious liability against TSH, Austin's employer, and he seeks $1, 000, 000 in damages. Id. ¶¶ 5-11. Jurisdiction is premised on diversity of citizenship. See ECF 1 at 2; 28 U.S.C. § 1332.

         Defendants have moved to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(2), claiming lack of personal jurisdiction, and pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(3), claiming improper venue. See ECF 4 (“Motion”). Cranford opposes the Motion. See ECF 7 (amended opposition); ECF 7-2 (legal memorandum) (collectively, “Opposition”). He argues that this Court has personal jurisdiction and that venue is proper. But, in the alternative, he requests a transfer to the Eastern District of Virginia. ECF 7-2. Defendants replied. See ECF 8 (“Reply”).

         No hearing is necessary to resolve the Motion. See Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons that follow, I conclude that this Court lacks personal jurisdiction and that venue is improper. Therefore, I shall transfer the case to the Eastern District of Virginia.

         I. Background [1]

         Cranford resides in Odenton, Maryland. ECF 1, ¶ 1. Austin resides in Houston, Texas. Id. ¶ 2. TSH “is a foreign corporation not registered with the State of Maryland, ” with its principal place of business in Tennessee. Id. ¶ 3, 10.

         According to Cranford, on February 8, 2016, while Austin was an employee or agent of TSH, Austin negligently changed lanes and hit the side of Cranford's vehicle. ECF 1, ¶¶ 5-7, 10-11. Cranford claims that the accident occurred near an intersection in Fairfax County, Virginia. Id. ¶ 5. He alleges, inter alia, that he suffered severe and permanent bodily injury as a result of the crash. Id. ¶ 8. Plaintiff seeks judgment in the amount of $1, 000, 000. Id. at 3.

         Plaintiff maintains that TSH “advertises itself as a national transportation company” and has “contracts for pick-ups and deliveries in the State of Maryland.” ECF 1, ¶ 3. In his Opposition, plaintiff asserts that TSH's “website contains a section where drivers can look for potential freight opportunities.” ECF 7-2 at 4. As an exhibit to the Opposition, plaintiff included an image of the website on November 17, 2017, showing that TSH listed two freight opportunities originating in Maryland that day. ECF 7-3 at 1-2. He also contends that “[o]ther dates have listed more and less routes originating and/or terminating in the State of Maryland.” ECF 7-2 at 4.

         II. Legal Standard

         A. Personal Jurisdiction

         Defendants' Motion for lack of personal jurisdiction is predicated on Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(2). ECF 4 at 1. Under Rule 12(b)(2), the burden is “on the plaintiff ultimately to prove the existence of a ground for jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence.” Combs v. Bakker, 886 F.2d 673, 676 (4th Cir. 1989); see Universal Leather, LLC v. Koro AR, S.A., 773 F.3d 553, 558 (4th Cir. 2014).

         “[A] Rule 12(b)(2) challenge raises an issue for the court to resolve, generally as a preliminary matter.” Grayson v. Anderson, 816 F.3d 262, 267 (4th Cir. 2016). When “the existence of jurisdiction turns on disputed factual questions the court may resolve the [jurisdictional] challenge on the basis of a separate evidentiary hearing, or may defer ruling pending receipt at trial of evidence relevant to the jurisdictional question.” Combs, 886 F.2d at 676. In its discretion, a court may also permit discovery as to the jurisdictional issue. See Mylan Laboratories, Inc. v. Akzo, N.V., 2 F.3d 56, 64 (4th Cir. 1993). However, neither discovery nor an evidentiary hearing is required in order for the court to resolve a motion under Rule 12(b)(2). See generally 5B C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure § 1351 at 274-313 (3d ed.) (“Wright & Miller”).

         “The plaintiff's burden in establishing jurisdiction varies according to the posture of a case and the evidence that has been presented to the court.” Grayson, 816 F.3d at 268. If the district court addresses the question of personal jurisdiction as a preliminary matter, it may rule solely on the basis of motion papers, supporting legal memoranda, affidavits, and the allegations in the complaint. Consulting Engineers Corp. v. Geometric Ltd., 561 F.3d 273, 276 (4th Cir. 2009); see Grayson, 816 F.3d at 268. In that circumstance, the “plaintiff need only make ‘a prima facie showing of personal jurisdiction to survive the jurisdictional challenge.'” Grayson, 816 F.3d at 268 (quoting Combs, 886 F.2d at 676). “When determining whether a plaintiff has made the requisite prima facie showing, the court must take the allegations and available evidence relating to personal jurisdiction in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Grayson, 816 F.3d at 268; see Carefirst of Maryland, Inc. v. Carefirst Pregnancy Ctrs., Inc., 334 F.3d 390, 396 (4th Cir. 2003). But, “district courts are not required . . . to look solely to the plaintiff's proof in drawing those inferences.” Mylan Laboratories, 2 F.3d at 62.

         Notably, “‘[a] threshold prima facie finding that personal jurisdiction is proper does not finally settle the issue; plaintiff must eventually prove the existence of personal jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence, either at trial or at a pretrial evidentiary hearing.'” New Wellington Fin. Corp. v. Flagship Resort Dev. Corp., 416 F.3d 290, 294 n. 5 (4th Cir. 2005) (emphasis in original) (citation omitted).

         B. Venue

         Defendants claim venue is improper in Maryland, under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(3) and 28 U.S.C. § 1391. ECF 4 at 1. In the Fourth Circuit, when a challenge to venue is raised, the plaintiff bears the burden of demonstrating that venue is appropriate. Bartholomew v. Virginia Chiropractors Association, 612 F.2d 812, 816 (4th Cir. 1979), cert. denied, 446 U.S. 938 (1980), overruled on other grounds by Union Labor Life Ins. Co. v. Pireno, 458 U.S. 119 (1982); accord Tinoco v. Thesis Painting, Inc., GJH-16-752, 2017 WL 52554, at *2 (D. Md. Jan. 3, 2017); Jones v. Koons Auto. Inc., 752 F.Supp.2d 670, 679 (D. Md. 2010).

         The court may hold an evidentiary hearing and “freely consider evidence outside the pleadings.” Sucampo Pharm., Inc. v. Astellas Pharma, Inc., 471 F.3d 544, 550 (4th Cir. 2006); see also Aggarao v. MOL Ship Mgmt. Co., 675 F.3d 355, 365-56 (4th Cir. 2012) (“On a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(3), a court is permitted to consider evidence outside the pleadings.”); Taylor v. Shreeji Swami, Inc., PWG-16-3787, 2017 WL 1832206, at *1 (D. Md. May 8, 2017) (same); Convergence Mgmt. Assocs., Inc. v. Callender, TDC-15-4015, 2016 WL 6662253, at *2 (D. Md. Nov. 10, 2016) (same). However, if the court does not hold an evidentiary hearing, “the plaintiff need only make a prima facie showing that venue is proper.” CareFirst, Inc. v. Taylor, 235 F.Supp.3d 724, 732 (D. Md. 2017) (citing Mitrano v. Hawes, 377 F.3d 402, 405 (4th Cir. 2004) (“CareFirst”). “In assessing whether there has been a prima facie venue showing, [the court views] the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Aggarao, 675 F.3d at 366.

         Because “‘it is possible for venue to be proper in more than one judicial district,' the question is not whether a given district is the best venue, but whether the events or omissions that occurred there are ‘sufficiently substantial.'” CareFirst Inc., 235 F.Supp.3d. at 732 (quoting Mitrano, 377 F.3d at 405). And, in considering “whether events or omissions are sufficiently substantial to support venue . . ., a court should not focus only on those matters that are in dispute or that directly led to the filing of the action.” Mitrano, 377 F.3d at 406 (citation omitted). Instead, “it should review ‘the entire sequence of events underlying the claim.'” Id.; accord Taylor, 2017 WL 1832206, at *1; Callender, 2016 WL 6662253, at *2.

         III. Discussion

         A. Personal Jurisdiction

         Plaintiff's Opposition is not a model of clarity. In a subsection titled “Venue is Proper in this Jurisdiction, ” Cranford contends, ECF 7-2 at 2:

As all parties are either citizens of the United States or corporate entities organized under its laws, there is no question that a federal court possesses personal jurisdiction over any party. In diversity cases, the law recognizes that a given federal jurisdiction may be called to adjudicate a dispute between parties in which the hosting state/jurisdiction may not have personal jurisdiction. Of course, there is still the question of venue in diversity cases.

         Then, Cranford begins his venue analysis. ECF 7-2 at 2. In the midst of that analysis, plaintiff cites Maryland's long-arm statute and identifies the provisions that he believes confer personal jurisdiction in this Court. See Id. at 4. Plaintiff cites no case law in support of his personal jurisdiction claims, beyond drawing a distinction between the case at hand and one case that defendants cite in their Motion. See Id. at 5. According to plaintiff, “it would be legally and ethically problematic to allege that [this Court] does not have personal jurisdiction . . . .” Id. at 4.

         Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(k)(1) authorizes a federal district court to exercise personal jurisdiction over a defendant in accordance with the law of the state in which the district court is located. See Carefirst of Maryland, Inc., 334 F.3d at 396. Therefore, “to assert personal jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant, two conditions must be satisfied: (1) the exercise of jurisdiction must be authorized under the state's long-arm statute; and (2) the exercise of jurisdiction must comport with the due process requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Id.

         1. Maryland's Long-Arm Statute

         Maryland's long-arm statute is codified at Md. Code (2013 Repl. Vol., 2017 Supp.), §§ 6-101 to 104 of the Courts & Judicial Proceedings Article. (“C.J.”)

         Under C.J. § 6-103(a): “If jurisdiction over a person is based solely upon this section, he may be sued only on a cause of action arising from any act enumerated in this section.” (Emphasis added). C.J. ยง 6-103(b) authorizes ...


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