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Bruce v. Board of Supervisors of Louisiana Community & Technical Colleges

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

November 19, 2018

LEE EM BRUCE, RONNEKA SMITH AND WILLIE BROWN
v.
BOARD OF SUPERVISORS OF THE LOUISIANA COMMUNITY AND TECHNICAL COLLEGES AND DR. MONTY SULLIVAN, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS SYSTEM PRESIDENT

          RULING

          SHELLY D. DICK, CHIEF DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on the Motion to Transfer Venue[1] by Defendants, The Board of Supervisors of the Louisiana Community and Technical Colleges (“LCTCS”) and Dr. Monty Sullivan, in his official capacity as System President (“Sullivan”)(or collectively “Defendants”). Plaintiffs Lee Em Bruce, Ronneka Smith, and Willie Brown (“Plaintiffs”) have filed an Opposition[2] to this motion. For the following reasons, the Court finds that Defendants' motion should be granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs are students who have previously been or are currently enrolled at Delgado Community College (“Delgado”), [3] an institution within the LCTCS, with four campuses located in New Orleans, Louisiana and one campus located in Metairie, Louisiana.[4] Plaintiffs are deaf individuals who communicate primarily in American Sign Language (“ASL”), [5] and they allege generally that Defendants have repeatedly discriminated against them by failing and/or refusing to provide auxiliary aids and services necessary to ensure effective communication with Defendants' employees, staff, faculty, and professors in a manner equal to those services provided to hearing students.[6] As a result of this alleged discrimination, Plaintiffs contend they have been and continue to be unable to meaningfully engage in the educational services provided by Delgado.

         On October 25, 2017, Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in the Eastern District of Louisiana against the same Defendants named herein which appears to be identical to the present lawsuit.[7] However, on October 30, 2017, Plaintiffs filed a Notice of Voluntary Dismissal without Prejudice, which the Eastern District granted.[8] Plaintiffs subsequently filed the instant litigation in the Middle District of Louisiana on January 5, 2018.[9] Defendants now move to transfer venue to the Eastern District of Louisiana.

         II. LAW & ANALYSIS

         A. Motion To Transfer Venue

         “Section 1404(a) of Title 28 allows the Court in its discretion to transfer venue to another district or division, ‘[f]or the convenience of parties and witnesses, in the interest of justice,' where the action might have been brought.”[10] “‘When the movant demonstrates that the transferee venue is clearly more convenient' than the venue chosen by the plaintiff, ‘it has shown good cause and the district court should grant the transfer.'”[11]

         “In determining whether to transfer a case, the court must consider both private interest factors and public interest factors after first considering whether the judicial district to which transfer is sought would have been a district in which the claim could have been filed.”[12] “These factors are ‘not necessarily exhaustive or exclusive' and ‘none can be said to be of dispositive weight.'”[13]

         The private interest factors that a court must consider are: “(1) the relative ease of access to sources of proof; (2) the availability of compulsory process to secure the attendance of witnesses; (3) the cost of attendance for willing witnesses; and (4) all other practical problems that make trial of a case easy, expeditious and inexpensive.”[14] The public factors to be considered are: “(1) the administrative difficulties flowing from court congestion; (2) the local interest in having localized interests decided at home; (3) the familiarity of the forum with the law that will govern the case; and (4) the avoidance of unnecessary problems of conflict of laws [or in] the application of foreign law.”[15] “The Fifth Circuit has explained that a plaintiff's choice of venue is not determinative in the analysis, but the plaintiff's choice of venue should be respected if the transferee venue is not clearly more convenient.”[16]

         B. Arguments of Parties

         Defendants do not argue that the Middle District is an improper venue for this suit considering that Delgado is supervised under the LCTCS, and the LCTCS is domiciled in East Baton Rouge Parish within the Middle District. However, Defendants maintain the Eastern District is also a proper venue because Delgado has several campuses in New Orleans and Metairie, and all campuses are located within the Eastern District.

         Defendants maintain that the private interest factors in this case weigh in favor of transfer. Defendants contend the Eastern District is the more convenient court because a substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to the claims asserted in this matter occurred on Delgado's campuses. Defendants note that Plaintiffs' Complaint filed in the Eastern District contained allegations that venue was proper in the Eastern District “because a substantial part of the events that give rise to the claims occurred in this District.”[17] Further, regarding the instant suit, Defendants argue that Plaintiffs' First Amended Complaint alleges no personal conduct by any member of the LCTCS, nor do they allege that any interaction with Delgado staff occurred in the Middle District. Notably, in both the Eastern District Complaint and the original Complaint filed in this Court, Plaintiffs Bruce and Smith alleged that they reside in the New Orleans area.[18] However, in Plaintiffs' First Amended Complaint, all allegations regarding Plaintiffs' residences have been removed.[19] Thus, because no Plaintiff indicates that he/she lives in the Middle District, Defendants contend Plaintiffs' choice of forum should be afforded little deference in this case.

         Defendants also challenge Plaintiffs' allegation in their First Amended Complaint that “[v]enue is proper in this district … because a substantial part of the events that give rise to the claims occurred in this district.”[20] Defendants submit that Plaintiffs' allegations directly contradict this contention as both Bruce and Smith claim they took classes in person at Delgado, and Smith indicates that she was enrolled at Delgado's City Park Campus in New Orleans. Bruce and Smith further allege that they personally interacted with Gretchen Peoples and other staff members at Delgado's financial aid office, and, although Brown claims he participated in Delgado's online courses, he alleges he contacted Delgado's Office of Disability Services.[21] Defendants claim no presence in the Middle District as Delgado's physical classrooms, [22] Office of Financial Aid, [23] and Office of Disability Services[24] are all located in the New Orleans area. Additionally, Defendants contend the student records and documentary evidence of resources and accommodations provided to students attending Delgado are kept and maintained in New Orleans within the Office of Disability Services.[25]

         Defendants also maintain that transferring venue to the Eastern District would mitigate against witness costs as Delgado's campuses are substantially closer to the Eastern District rather than the Middle District, and the key witnesses to this litigation work and reside in the Eastern District, i.e., Gretchen Peoples, Delgado's disability services coordinator;[26] Joseph Williams, who is alleged to have personally interacted with Plaintiff Smith;[27] and Dr. Arnel Cosey, the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and Executive Dean of Delgado's City Park Campus.[28] Further, although Defendants admit that not every potential or possible witness has been identified at this stage of the litigation, Defendants contend that it is reasonably likely that most witnesses with key knowledge as to the facts surrounding this case will work and/or reside in the Eastern District. As such, Defendants submit that trial of this matter would be more expeditious and less expensive if tried in the Eastern District. In the event of a multi-day trial in the Middle District, greater meal and lodging costs would almost certainly be necessary. Finally, the subpoena power is equal as to both districts and is neutral.

         As to the public interest factors, Defendants argue that these factors also weigh in favor of transfer. Defendants note that, statistically, the Eastern District would likely resolve this litigation in a shorter median time as compared to the Middle District. Defendants offer evidence showing that the median time from filing to disposition in civil cases is 6.8 months in the Eastern District contrasted by 11.4 months in the Middle District, and an even shorter median time from filing to trial exists in the Eastern District - 17.9 months - as compared to the Middle District - 36 months.[29]

         Additionally, Defendants claim that the localized interests in having this case decided in the Eastern District weigh in favor of transfer as any decision will directly affect Delgado particularly more than the LCTCS generally. Defendants argue that Delgado creates and implements its own policies in accordance with the general rules of the LCTCS, and if Plaintiffs prevail herein, the relief obtained will directly affect Delgado rather than the LCTC system. As Delgado has no campuses within the Middle District, no relief will be felt in the Middle District.

         Finally, Defendants contend the Middle and Eastern Districts are equally equipped to adjudicate the constitutional matter complained of, and there are no conflicts of law or application of foreign law present. Accordingly, Defendants maintain they have demonstrated that transferring this case to the Eastern District is warranted and is in the best interests of justice.

         Plaintiffs oppose the Defendants' motion, arguing that Section 1404(a) does not grant a defendant the power to substitute its preference of venue over that of a plaintiff's. Plaintiffs cite the Supreme Court's decision in Gulf Oil Corp. v. Gilbert, wherein the Court stated: “It is often said that the plaintiff may not, by choice of an inconvenient forum, vex, harass or oppress the defendant by inflicting upon him expense or trouble not necessary to his own right to pursue his remedy. But unless the balance is strongly in favor of the defendant, the plaintiff's choice of forum should rarely be disturbed.”[30] Plaintiffs contend there is nothing vexatious or harassing by suing Defendants in the district closest to Defendants' home office, where funding is allocated, centralized decisions are made, and where Defendants' counsel are located.[31]

         Plaintiffs argue Defendants have not met their burden of demonstrating that the Eastern District is a more convenient forum that the Middle District. In weighing the private and public interest factors, Plaintiffs offer several reasons why this case should be tried in the Middle District rather than the Eastern District. Regarding sources of proof, costs to witnesses, and other practical problems, Plaintiffs contend Defendants have failed to carry their burden of demonstrating that these factors clearly favor transfer.

         Plaintiffs submit that the issues raised in this case involve system-wide contracts with disability service care providers and the allocation of funding to the various colleges within the LCTCS system; thus, Plaintiffs maintain that any effort to resolve their claims of systematic deficiencies, and Defendants' failure to accommodate students with disabilities, will likely involve evidence and witnesses located in Baton Rouge where the offices of both the LCTCS and Dr. Sullivan are located. Plaintiffs acknowledge that substantial evidence pertinent to the instant litigation may be located in the Eastern District; however, Plaintiffs argue that Defendants and their lawyers are domiciled in the Middle District, and several witnesses and potential evidence are likely to be located in the Middle District.

         Plaintiffs counter that Defendants' claims that they will experience inconvenience, prejudice, or financial hardship if this case is tried in the Middle District are speculative and meritless as the Middle District is less than eighty (80) miles away from Delgado's main campus. Plaintiffs also note that Defendants admitted that none of their witnesses are located outside of the 100-mile threshold for considering witness costs and Document Number: 48933 inconvenience as required by the Fifth Circuit.[32] Thus, Plaintiffs argue Defendants' preference in trying this case in the Eastern District does not constitute “clear proof” in favor of transfer.[33]

         As to the public interest factors, Plaintiffs note Defendants' concession that familiarity with the law and avoidance of conflicts of law are neutral. Plaintiffs claim that Defendants' arguments regarding administrative difficulties and localized interests are speculative and fail to meet Defendants' burden. Plaintiffs argue Defendants' statistical data “ignores significant changes that have occurred in both the Eastern and Middle Districts in 2018, ”[34] making specific reference to the Honorable Eastern District Court Judge Kurt Engelhardt's ascension to the Fifth Circuit. Further, Plaintiffs cite this Court's previous finding in Utility Constructors, Inc. v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. that the time between filing suit and trial is not entitled to much weight because it is the most speculative.[35] Plaintiffs also claim that this Court has already “invested significant time and resources in becoming familiar with the facts and law of this case.”[36]

         Plaintiffs attempt to refute the localized interest arguments presented by Defendants, arguing that Defendants ignore the systemic nature of the alleged discrimination and the purported “Baton-Rouge-centric nature of Defendants' own affirmative defenses” such as sovereign immunity, qualified immunity, and fundamental alteration/undue burden.[37] Plaintiffs also argue that Baton Rouge taxpayers have at least as much interest in the outcome of this litigation, if not more, than New Orleans taxpayers.

         C. Analysis

         1. Suit Could Have Been Filed in Eastern District of Louisiana

         Pursuant to the Section 1404(a) framework, the Court must first determine whether this lawsuit could have been brought in the Eastern District. Thus, the general venue statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1391, applies, which establishes venue in: (1) a judicial district in which any defendant resides, if all defendants are residents of the State in which the district is located; (2) a judicial district in which a substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to the claim occurred ...; or (3) if there is no district in which an action may otherwise be brought as provided in this section, any judicial district in which any defendant is subject to the court's personal jurisdiction with respect to such action.[38]

         As this case appears to have been previously filed in the Eastern District of Louisiana, and no party disputes that this suit could have been filed in the Eastern District of Louisiana, the Court finds that this action could have been brought ...


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