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International Masonry Training and Education Foundation v. Hawaii Masons Training Fund

United States District Court, D. Maryland

April 3, 2019



          Paula Xinis United States District Judge

         Pending in this ERISA case is Defendants' motion to transfer venue and to dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint. ECF No. 8. The motion is fully briefed, and no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6. For the following reasons, the Court grants the motion to transfer.[1]

         I. Background

         Plaintiff International Masonry Training and Education Foundation (“IMTEF”) is an employee welfare benefit plan, employee benefit plan, and multiemployer plan created to provide apprenticeship training and educational benefits to eligible participants. ECF No. 1 ¶ 8. IMTEF is administered in Maryland. Id. ¶ 6. Defendant Hawaii Masons' Training Fund (“Hawaii Fund”) is also an employee welfare benefit plan, employee benefit plan, and multiemployer plan. Id. ¶ 10. The Hawaii Fund is administered in Hawaii, id., and all of its trustees reside in Hawaii. ECF No. 8-5 ¶ 5; ECF No. 8-6 ¶ 5; ECF No. 8-7 ¶ 6; ECF No. 8-8 ¶ 5; ECF No. 8-9 ¶ 5; ECF No. 8-10 ¶ 5; ECF No. 8-11 ¶ 5; ECF No. 8-12 ¶ 5. The Hawaii Fund has not conducted any business in Maryland during the tenure of any defendant-trustee. ECF No. 8- 5 ¶ 3; ECF No. 8-6 ¶ 3; ECF No. 8-7 ¶ 3; ECF No. 8-8 ¶ 3; ECF No. 8-9 ¶ 3; ECF No. 8-10 ¶ 3; ECF No. 8-11 ¶ 3; ECF No. 8-12 ¶ 3.

         Several collective bargaining agreements, which were consummated in Hawaii, require participating employers to contribute to IMTEF. According to Plaintiffs, the agreements require the Hawaii Fund to collect and forward the contributions to IMTEF. Id. ¶¶ 14-15. The Hawaii Fund, however, has retained such contributions totaling in excess of $430, 000. Id. ¶ 16. As a result, Plaintiffs IMTEF and its Board of Trustees filed this action against the Hawaii Fund and its trustees, alleging violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq., as well as Hawaii common law claims of conversion, breach of fiduciary duty, tortious interference with contractual relations, and unjust enrichment. ECF No. 1. Defendants moved to transfer this action to Hawaii and to dismiss the Complaint. ECF No. 8.

         II. Analysis

         The propriety of transfer is governed by 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a), which states, “[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 or division where it might have been brought or to any district or division to which all parties have consented.” To prevail on a transfer motion, “the defendant must show by a preponderance of the evidence that the proposed transfer will better and more conveniently serve the interests of the parties and witnesses and better promote the interests of justice.” Jones v. Koons Auto., Inc., 752 F.Supp.2d 670, 680-81 (D. Md. 2010) (quoting Helsel v. Tishman Realty & Constr. Co., 198 F.Supp.2d 710, 711 (D. Md. 2002)) (internal quotation marks omitted). The defendant cannot rely on conclusory allegations of hardship to meet this burden but rather must demonstrate, by affidavit or otherwise, evidence of “the hardships they would suffer if the case were heard in the plaintiff's chosen forum.” Dow v. Jones, 232 F.Supp.2d 491, 499 (D. Md. 2002).

         When deciding whether to transfer the matter, the Court first considers if the action could have been brought in the requested venue. In re: Volkswagen of Am., Inc., 545 F.3d 304, 312 (4th Cir. 2008). If venue is proper in the requested forum, the Court next considers: “(1) the weight accorded the plaintiff's choice of venue; (2) witness convenience and access; (3) convenience of the parties; and (4) the interest of justice.” Lynch v. Vanderhoef Builders, 237 F.Supp.2d 615, 617 (D. Md. 2002).

         Defendants request transfer to the District of Hawaii, a forum in which this ERISA case could have been brought. Under ERISA, venue is proper “in the 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). Defendants may all be found in Hawaii and the alleged breaches occurred in Hawaii. ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 10, 46, 53. Likewise, the Hawaii common law claims could all be properly brought pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b). Because venue is proper in Hawaii, the Court next weighs the above-stated factors to determine the propriety of transfer. The Court addresses each factor in turn.

         A. Plaintiff's Choice of Venue

         Generally, the “plaintiff's forum choice of venue is ‘entitled to substantial weight.'” Cross v. Fleet Reserve Ass'n Pension Plan, 383 F.Supp.2d 852, 856 (D. Md. 2005) (quoting Bd. of Trs., Sheet Metal Workers Nat'l Fund v. Baylor Heating & Air Conditioning, Inc., 702 F.Supp. 1253, 1256 (E.D. Va. 1988)). Actions brought pursuant to ERISA accord “somewhat greater” weight to the plaintiff's choice of forum, as reflected in ERISA's liberal venue provision. Trs. of the Plumbers & Pipefitters Nat'l Pension Fund v. Plumbing Servs., 791 F.3d 436, 444 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Cross, 383 F.Supp.2d at 856-57) (internal quotation marks omitted). That said, the plaintiff's choice is “significantly lessened” where, as here, the chosen forum “‘has little connection to the merits of the underlying dispute.'” Int'l Painters & Allied Trade Indus. Pension Fund v. Marrero Glass & Metal, Inc., No. ELH-18-452, 2019 WL 423409, at *4 (D. Md. Feb. 1, 2019) (quoting Lynch, 237 F.Supp.2d at 617).

         The only connection between Plaintiffs' chosen forum-the District of Maryland-and this case is that IMTEF administers its plan from Bowie, Maryland. But IMTEF's plan administration is not at issue in this case. Rather, the events giving rise to the Complaint all took place in Hawaii. The pertinent collective bargaining agreements were executed in Hawaii; the pertinent contributions were made to the Hawaii Fund; and the funds are held in Hawaii. Plaintiffs' choice of forum in this circumstance is, at best, “significant, but neither dispositive nor conclusive.” Baylor Heating, 702 F.Supp. at 1257; see also Marrero Glass, 2019 WL 423409, at *4.

         B. Witness Convenience and Access

         The second factor, witness convenience, is “[p]erhaps the most important factor to be considered by a court.” Cronos Containers, Ltd. v. Amazon Lines, Ltd., 121 F.Supp.2d 461, 466 (D. Md. 2000). Defendants contend, and Plaintiffs do not dispute, that all key witnesses and documents are located in Hawaii. ECF No. 13 at 11; ECF No. 16 at 6. Plaintiffs nonetheless maintain that trial may still conveniently occur in Maryland because, at trial, the parties could submit depositions in lieu of ...

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