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Atkins v. Heavy Petroleum Partners, LLC

United States District Court, D. Kansas

August 6, 2014

PAUL ATKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
HEAVY PETROLEUM PARTNERS, LLC, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

DANIEL D. CRABTREE, District Judge.

Plaintiff filed this lawsuit against defendants in the District Court of Jefferson County, Kansas, on January 6, 2014, alleging fraud, fraud on the court, and conspiracy claims under Kansas law. On February 12, 2014, defendants Heavy Petroleum Partners, LLC, Cherokee Wells, LLC, Robert DeFeo, Jens Hansen, John Wesley Broomes, and Hinkle Law Firm LLC (hereinafter, "the Removing Defendants") timely filed a Notice of Removal in this Court under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332, 1441, and 1446. This matter is before the Court on the Removing Defendants' Motion to Transfer Case (Doc. 14). As explained in more detail below, the Court grants the Removing Defendants' Motion to Transfer Case (Doc. 14).

I. Background

The allegations in plaintiff's Petition arise from a dispute over an oil and gas lease in northeast Kansas. Among other allegations, plaintiff claims that defendants fraudulently obtained his interest in an oil and gas lease ("the Noll Lease") during the pendency of a separate lawsuit filed in the District of Kansas styled Heavy Petroleum Partners, LLC v. Atkins, Case No. 09-1077-EFM ("the First Lawsuit"). See Pl.'s Pet. Under K.S.A. Ch. 60 (Doc. 1-1 at ¶ 1). The Honorable Eric F. Melgren in the Wichita Division of the United States District Court for the District of Kansas presided over the First Lawsuit.

Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 1 and 28 U.S.C. §1404(a), the Removing Defendants move the Court to transfer this case to Judge Melgren. Plaintiff opposes the motion to transfer, arguing it is a hardship for plaintiff, his counsel, and non-party witnesses to travel from Jefferson County, Kansas, to Wichita, Kansas, for the proceedings in this case. The Removing Defendants assert that the transfer of this case to Judge Melgren in Wichita would promote the interests of justice because Judge Melgren presided over the First Lawsuit which lasted almost five years and included two trials and multiple hearings. In that lengthy litigation, the Removing Defendants argue, Judge Melgren obtained "an intimate understanding of the facts in this lawsuit." In addition, Judge Melgren issued the orders that plaintiff claims were obtained by fraud. The Court finds that these arguments are valid ones for transferring the lawsuit to a judge who possesses a sophisticated grasp of the underlying facts. Consequently, the Court concludes that a transfer will promote the interests of justice.

II. Legal Standard

Fed. R. Civ. P. 1 states that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure "should be construed and administered to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action and proceeding." Title 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a) provides that "a district court may transfer any civil action to any other district or division where it might have been brought" if such transfer is appropriate "[f]or the convenience of parties and witnesses, in the interest of justice." "The party moving to transfer a case pursuant to § 1404(a) bears the burden of establishing that the existing forum is inconvenient." Chrysler Credit Corp. v. Country Chrysler, Inc., 928 F.2d 1509, 1515 (10th Cir. 1991) (citations omitted). The district court has discretion in considering motions for transfer using "an individualized, case-by-case consideration of convenience and fairness.'" Id. (quoting Stewart Org., Inc. v. Ricoh Corp., 487 U.S. 22, 29 (1988)) (further quotations omitted).

The Tenth Circuit has provided a list of factors that a district court should consider in deciding whether to transfer an action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1404(a):

the plaintiff's choice of forum; the accessibility of witnesses and other sources of proof, including the availability of compulsory process to insure attendance of witnesses; the cost of making the necessary proof; questions as to the enforceability of a judgment if one is obtained; relative advantages and obstacles to a fair trial; difficulties that may arise from congested dockets; the possibility of the existence of questions arising in the area of conflict of laws; the advantage of having a local court determine questions of local law; and, all other considerations of a practical nature that make a trial easy, expeditious and economical.

Id. (citing Texas Gulf Sulphur Co. v. Ritter, 371 F.2d 145, 147 (10th Cir. 1967)).

III. Analysis

a. The Lawsuit "Might Have Been Brought" before Judge Melgren.

First, the Court agrees with the Removing Defendants that this action "might have been brought" before Judge Melgren, which 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a) requires before the Court may order a transfer. As described above, plaintiff filed this action in Jefferson County, Kansas (the Second Judicial District), and the Removing Defendants removed the lawsuit to federal court. As required by this Court's local rule, they filed the Notice of Removal in the Topeka Division. See D. Kan. Rule 81.1(b)(2); see also Notice of Removal (Doc. 1 at ¶ 37).

The District of Kansas has a district-wide civil draw for its active judges. See 613 Agro Holdings, LLC v. Renick, No. 12-2425-JAR, 2013 WL 1091632, at *6 (D. Kan. Mar. 15, 2013) (explaining the district-wide draw and refusing to transfer a case to the Wichita Division because "Defendants are just as likely upon transfer' to draw a Kansas City judge as when the case was initially filed."); see also E-mail from Kansas Federal District Court (Chief Judge Kathryn H. Vratil) to Attorneys Registered in the District of Kansas (February 5, 2010, 10:37 CST) (on file with the United States District Court for the District of Kansas and attached as Exhibit A to this Order). When the Removing Defendants removed this case, the Notice of Removal was filed in the Topeka Division as required by the local rule, but the case was assigned initially to the Honorable Kathryn H. Vratil, a Kansas City judge, under the district-wide draw. On May 13, 2014, Judge Vratil assigned the case to the undersigned Judge, who sits in Topeka (Doc. 21). Under the district-wide draw, the case might have been assigned to Judge Melgren at the time it was removed. Thus, this case might have been brought before Judge Melgren.

The Court notes that the Removing Defendants have filed a Designation of Place of Trial designating Wichita, Kansas, as the place for trial in this lawsuit. Doc. 3. However, as the Removing Defendants concede, Judge Melgren tried the two trials in the First Lawsuit in Topeka, Kansas. At this time, the Court is not addressing the appropriate trial location for this action. If the parties dispute the proper location for trial, they must take up that issue at another time.

b. Transfer Will Promote the Interests of Justice.

Second, the Court finds that transfer is appropriate here in the interests of justice. The claims in this lawsuit are based almost entirely on events that occurred in the First Lawsuit. Judge Melgren, who presided over the First Lawsuit, already possesses an understanding of the facts involved in this case, and, as the Removing Defendants point out, the parties have built a substantial record before Judge Melgren involving many of the same facts and legal issues that are asserted in the Petition in this lawsuit.

The Removing Defendants also assert that an action for fraud on the court is best heard in the court that rendered the judgment that was obtained by fraud. See, e.g., Crosby v. Mills, 413 F.2d 1273, 1275 (10th Cir. 1969) (stating that the "better practice" is to assert a collateral attack of a judgment under Rule 60 to the referee in a bankruptcy proceeding, who issued the orders being attacked); see also Hazel-Atlas Glass Co. v. Hartford-Empire Co., 322 U.S. 238, 247-50 (1944) (holding that where the fraud had been committed on the Third Circuit, that court was the appropriate court to remedy the fraud); Weisman v. Charles E. Smith Mgmt., Inc., 829 F.2d 511, 513-14 (4th Cir. 1987) (holding that the district court, and not the appellate court, is in the best position to decide whether any fraud was perpetrated on it and therefore must decide whether to set aside the judgment based upon fraud on the court); Taft v. Donellan Jerome, Inc., 407 F.2d 807, 809 (7th Cir. 1969) (stating that plaintiff's action filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana seeking to set aside a judgment from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois based on fraud on the court must be brought in the court which rendered the original judgment); Chewning v. Ford Motor Co., 35 F.Supp.2d 487, 492 (D.S.C. 1998) (holding that the action should be remanded to the state court that rendered the judgment because an equitable action to set aside a verdict may only be heard by the court whose judgment is challenged); see also 11 Charles Alan Wright, et al., Federal Practice and Procedure § 2870 (3d ed. 2012) ("If the fraud was on an appellate court, that court, rather than the trial court, should consider the matter."). Here, Judge Melgren issued the orders that plaintiff claims were obtained by fraud on the court. Thus, this Court concludes that Judge Melgren is in the better position to decide the issues in this case.

The Court is not persuaded by plaintiff's arguments that he, his counsel, and non-party witnesses will suffer hardship if they are forced to travel from Jefferson County, Kansas, to Wichita, Kansas, for the proceedings in this case. In determining that transfer is appropriate here, the Court is transferring the case to Judge Melgren for pretrial proceedings, and as noted above, the Court is not ruling on the proper location for trial. As Judge Robinson recently noted, "most pretrial proceedings are conducted by phone, and pretrial motions in civil cases are rarely called for hearing" in this District. 613 Agro Holdings, LLC, 2013 WL 1091632, at *6. Thus, the pretrial proceedings in this case should not require plaintiff to travel to Wichita. Therefore, the Court does not find that plaintiff will suffer hardship by assigning this case to Judge Melgren for the pretrial proceedings.

For these reasons, the Court finds that the Removing Defendants have met their burden to establish that transfer is appropriate under 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a) in the interests of justice. Therefore, the Court grants the Removing Defendants' Motion to Transfer Case and orders the Clerk of the Court to reassign this case to Judge Melgren.

IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED BY THE COURT THAT the Removing Defendants' Motion to Transfer Case (Doc. 14) is granted.

IT IS SO ORDERED.

EXHIBIT A

From: "Kansas Federal District Court" To:

Date: 02/05/2010 10:36 AM

Subject: District-Wide Draw for Civil Cases e-mail

Dear Colleagues:

As many of you may have heard, the United States District Court for the District of Kansas is preparing to implement a district-wide draw for civil cases on March 1, 2010. Essentially, this means that no matter where a civil case is filed, it will be randomly assigned to a district judge and a magistrate judge in Kansas City, Wichita or Topeka, without regard to the judge's duty station. In making this change, the Court is returning to the case assignment procedure which it employed until the 1980s, when it adopted the current practice of randomly assigning cases among judges who sit in particular courthouses. We have reached this decision after extended study, deliberation and debate, and we believe that it is necessary to more appropriately align our judicial resources with our civil case loads so that we may improve our ability to achieve a just, speedy and inexpensive determination in every civil case. Rule 1, Fed. R. Civ. P.

This change in the random judge-assignment process will not occasion any change in local Rule 40.2, which governs the place of trial. Rule 40.2, which has been in effect since 1990, outlines how the place of trial is determined. It provides as follows:

DETERMINATION OF PLACE OF TRIAL

(a) In General. At the time the complaint is filed, the

plaintiff must file a request stating the name of the city where the plaintiff desires the trial to be held. Unless the court orders otherwise, the plaintiffs request governs where the case is filed, docketed, and maintained. If a case is conventionally filed, the plaintiff must file a sufficient number of copies of the request to enable service to be made upon all parties.

(b) Request for Location Without Record Office. If the

plaintiff requests trial in a location where there is no record office of the court, the case will be docketed and maintained at the record office of the court where the case is filed, unless the court orders otherwise.

(c) Removed Actions. A removing party, at the time of filing the notice of removal as set forth in D. Kan. Rule 81.1, must also file a designation of place of trial.

(d) Responding Party's Request. The following parties must file a request stating the name of the city where they desire the trial to be held and, unless the court orders otherwise, serve the request upon each party affected thereby:

(1) each defendant, at the time it files its first pleading; and

(2) the plaintiff in a removed action, within 14 days after notice of the removal.

(e) Court Not Bound. The court is not bound by the requests for place of trial. It may determine the place of trial upon motion or in its discretion.

* * *

As amended 12/01/09, 11/16/90.

We have a well developed body of case law which discusses the discretionary factors that our judges consider in deciding the place of trial in individual cases, and our change to the random judge-assignment process does not reflect any intent to change that substantive case law. Generally, the assigned judge will travel to the place of trial which the parties have designated or to another place of trial which the judge has determined to be appropriate under Rule 40.2 and existing case law. In other words, the judges are willing and committed to travel to conduct trials and other in-court proceedings so that litigants throughout the District have equal opportunities for their cases to be resolved speedily, justly and inexpensively.

The Court's Strategic Planning Committee initiated this change, and the Court's Bench Bar Committee has approved it after spirited discussion and input from many segments of the practicing bar.


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