United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division
ORDER TRANSFERRING CASE
S. HANEN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Transfer Venue,
[Doc. No. 5 ("Defendants' Motion to Transfer Venue
to the Northern District of Texas (Dallas Division)")],
Motion"]. After considering the motion, response,
and relevant law, The Court herein grants Defendants'
Motion to Transfer the above-referenced action to the
Northern District of Texas, Dallas Division.
case is one of a long line of cases involving different
permutations of the same parties. Most, if not all, of the
prior cases were filed in Dallas County (state courts and the
Northern District of Texas) because that is where all the
underlying events took place. Plaintiff Hill III (hereinafter
"Hill III" or "Plaintiff), a descendant of
famed oilman H.L. Hunt, became embroiled in a string of
lawsuits related to Hunt's estate and other somewhat
related disputes with other family members. This litigation
history involves at least fifteen state court cases, all of
which were brought and heard in Dallas, Texas. This case is also
related, at least in terms of the involved parties, to Civil
Action No. 3:07-cv-02020, Hill v. Schilling et al,
Northern District of Texas (Dallas Division), and Civil
Action No. 3:17-cv-494, Hill v. Watkins et al,
Northern District of Texas (Dallas Division).
Hill v. Schilling et al., Civil Action No.
3:07-cv-02020 (the "02020 Action"), the parties
reached a settlement agreement, the General Settlement
Agreement ("GSA"), which was entered by the Court
as the final judgment to resolve the disputes related to the
estate with finality. In the GSA, the Court (the Northern
District of Dallas) expressly retained continuing and
exclusive jurisdiction over its Final Judgment, the GSA, and
the parties. (02020 Action ECF No. 999 ¶ 45). The GSA
contained various provisions releasing the Defendants from
future lawsuits related to the same underlying actions at
issue in that case amongst other agreed clauses in the GSA.
5, 2019, Hill III brought this suit against fifteen
individuals, asserting claims for malicious prosecution;
conspiracy related to malicious prosecution; and aiding,
abetting, and providing substantial assistance relating to
malicious prosecution. These claims arise out of two
different lawsuits against Hill III, one civil and the other
criminal. The first lawsuit, the civil dispute, was brought
against Hill III in the Northern District of Texas by
attorneys who had briefly represented him in a prior lawsuit
to collect unpaid attorney's fees. Because of the
pendency of the second criminal case, Hill III's
attorneys advised him not to testify and the court entered
judgment against Hill III and his wife for $21.9 million.
[Doc. No. 1, Ex. Plaintiffs Original Petition ¶ 51].
Beyond that, the record is not clear whether that judgment
has been appealed. The second lawsuit was a criminal charge
for claims of felony mortgage fraud, which was brought in
state court in Dallas, Texas. When the criminal court
dismissed the charges against Hill III, Texas appealed to the
Dallas Court of Appeals. Hill III contends that the
affirmance of the dismissal of those charges demonstrated
that the prosecution was "based upon the taint of
prosecutorial misconduct and the undue influence exercised
over Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins by Lisa Blue,
Hill Jr., and those working in concert with them." [Doc.
No. 21 at 5]. Hill III insists that the instant suit is
related to those cases and the alleged malicious misconduct
only. The Defendants contend that this lawsuit is just
another attempt to collaterally attack the GSA. [Doc. No. 5
III filed the instant case in the 127th District Court of
Harris County, Texas. Defendants removed it to federal court
based on federal question jurisdiction. Defendants argue that
Hill III is actually bringing legal challenges to the 2010
settlement, the GSA, and the Final Judgment of the Northern
District of Dallas. They argue that his Original Petition
makes clear that the actions leading up to the alleged
malicious prosecution are related to the family's prior
lawsuits, the actions of attorneys related to those prior
lawsuits, and are intended to unseat the GSA and Final
19, 2019, Defendants filed a Motion to Transfer Venue to the
Northern District of Texas, Dallas Division, pursuant both to
28 U.S.C. § 1404(a) and to a forum-selection clause they
contend is in the GSA and Final Judgment governing this
dispute. [Doc. No. 5]. Plaintiff filed a timely response
opposing any transfer of venue in compliance with the
scheduling order entered by the Court. [Doc. No. 21]. In his
response, Hill III argues that the motion should be denied
for four reasons: (1) that this Court does not have
jurisdiction in the first instance; (2) that no valid forum
selection clause covers his claims and the parties in this
case; (3) that even if a forum selection clause is found to
apply, that is should be disregarded on other grounds; and
(4) that his choice of forum is entitled to substantial
deference and the other private and public interest factors
do not weigh it. [Doc. No. 21 at 1-2].
LAW AND ANALYSIS
The Order of Deciding Questions Unrelated to the Merits
Supreme Court has explained that "a federal court
generally may not rule on the merits of a case without first
determining that it has jurisdiction over the category of
claim in suit (subject-matter jurisdiction) and the parties
(personal jurisdiction)." Sinochem Int'l Co. v.
Malay. Int'l Shipping Corp., 549 U.S. 422, 430-31
(2007) (citing Steel Co. v. Citizens for Better
Env't, 523 U.S. 83, 93-102 (1998)). When multiple
challenges are present before the Court, there is no
mandatory sequence for resolving non-merits based issues.
Id. at 435-36 (holding in the forum non
conveniens context that "where subject-matter or
personal jurisdiction is difficult to determine, and
forum non conveniens considerations weigh heavily in
favor of dismissal, the court properly takes the less
Court presently has two non-merits motions pending before it:
Plaintiffs Motion to Remand [Doc. No. 4] and the instant
motion, Defendants' Motion to Transfer [Doc. No. 5]. Hill
III has urged this Court to rule first on the Motion to
Remand. [Doc. No. 21 at 2 n.1]. Although the Fifth Circuit
has not expressly ruled on the issue, courts within the Fifth
Circuit have held that, in accordance with Sinochem,
a court may exercise its discretion in determining the order
in which to address decisions not affecting the merits.
Hardwick v. Factor, N. H-10-5249, 2011 WL 1831706,
at *2 (S.D. Tex. May 9, 2011) (Rosenthal, J.) ("A court
may decide a motion to transfer to another district before
ruling on other options, and deciding the motion to transfer
first is 'particularly appropriate where a related suit
is already pending in the transferee district.'")
(quoting Doubletree Partners, L.P. v. Land Am. Am. Title
Co., No. 3-08-CV-1547-O, 2008 WL 5119599, at *2 (N.D.
Tex. Dec. 3, 2008)); Curtis v. BP Am., Inc., 808
F.Supp.2d 976, 983 (S.D. Tex. 2011) (Rosenthal, J.)
("But while the absence of subject matter jurisdiction
prevents a court from reaching a case's merits, a court
may transfer a case without first determining whether it has
subject matter jurisdiction over the case.") (citing
In re LimitNone, LLC, 551 F.3d 572, 277-78 (7th Cir.
2008)); see also Tesoro Ref & Mktg. Co. LLC v. C.A.R.
Enters., Inc., No. SA-18-CV-820-XR, 2018 WL 6050603, at
*8 (W.D. Tex. Nov. 19, 2018) (Rodriguez, J.) ("[T]he
Court may decide to proceed with determining venue before
resolving the jurisdictional issue.").
the Court finds it appropriate to first decide the issue of
venue before the question of federal jurisdiction.
Section 1404(a) Factors
general venue statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1391 controls a
plaintiffs choice of venue. Under that section, a diversity
action may be brought in "(1) a judicial district in
which any defendant resides, if all defendants are residents
of the State in which the district is location; [or] (2) a
judicial district in which a substantial part of the events
or omissions giving rise to the claim occurred, or a
substantial part of property that is the subject of the
action is situated . . . ." 28 U.S.C. §
1391(b)(1)-(2). As the Fifth Circuit has explained, Congress
tempered the effects of this general venue statute by
enacting the venue transfer statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1404,
the statute under which Defendants seek to transfer venue.
In re Volkswagen of Am., Inc., 545 F.3d 304, 313
(5th Cir. 2008) (hereinafter "In re
Volkswagen II”). "The underlying premise of
§ 1404(a) is that courts should prevent plaintiffs from
abusing their privilege under § 1391 by subjecting
defendants to venues that are inconvenient under the terms of
§ 1404(a)." Id. (citing Norwood v.
Kirkpatrick, 349 U.S. 29, 32(1955)).
U.S.C. § 1404(a) provides as follows:
For 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
28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). "In order to obtain a new
federal [venue], the statute requires only that the transfer
be '[f]or the convenience of the parties, in the interest
of justice.'" In re Volkswagen II, 545 F.3d
at 314 (quoting Veba-Chemie A.G. v. M/V Getafix, 711
F.2d 1243, 1247 (5th Cir. 1983)). The movant must show
"good cause" to transfer, which the Fifth Circuit
has explained in the context of § 1404(a) means that
a moving party, in order to support its claim for a transfer,
must satisfy the statutory requirements and clearly
demonstrate that a transfer is "[f]or the convenience of
parties and witnesses, in the interest of justice."
Thus, when the transferee venue is not clearly more
convenient than the venue chosen by the plaintiff, the
plaintiffs choice should be respected. When the movant
demonstrates that the transferee venue is clearly more
convenient, however, it has shown good cause and the district
court should therefore grant the transfer.
Id. at 315. To guide trial courts in this inquiry,
the Supreme Court has established a list of both private
interest factors and public interest factors affecting the
convenience of the litigants and of the forum:
The factors pertaining to the private interests of the
litigants included the "relative ease of access to
sources of proof; availability of compulsory process for
attendance of unwilling, and the cost of obtaining attendance
of willing, witnesses; possibility of view of premises, if
view would be appropriate to the action; and all other
practical problems that make trial of a case easy,
expeditious and inexpensive." Gilbert, 330 U.S.
at 508, 67 S.Ct. at 843. The public factors bearing on the
question included the administrative difficulties flowing
from court congestion; the "local interest in having
localized controversies decided at home"; the interest
in having the trial of a diversity case in a forum that is at
home with the law that must govern the action; the avoidance
of unnecessary problems in conflict of laws, or in the
application of foreign law; and the unfairness of burdening
citizens in an unrelated forum with jury duty. Id.
at 509, 67 S.Ct. at 843.
Piper Aircraft Co. v. Reyno, 454 U.S. 235, 242 n.6
(1981) (citing Gulf Oil Corp. v. Gilbert, 330 U.S.
501 (1947)). Accordingly, the Court weighs these factors as
they apply to this case.
turning to the individual factors, the Court notes the
following: All the actions in the underlying dispute took
place in Dallas. All Defendants mentioned in the Petition
except one are in Dallas. Defendants defenses' and federal
jurisdiction claims are based on federal and state court
rulings in Dallas. Dallas state court injunctions also exist
governing portions of this wide web of legal disputes,
whether relevant to this litigation or not.
Private Interests Factors
argue that transfer is warranted because the alleged wrongful
conduct occurred in Dallas, the people involved in that
alleged wrongful conduct are located in Dallas (as this
dispute involved the Dallas County District Attorney's
office and Hill's family, all of whom are in Dallas), all
of the witnesses except for Hill III (the plaintiff, who now
lives in Atlanta, Georgia) are in Dallas, and all of the
Defendants except for one are located in Dallas. The
Defendant who lives outside of Dallas, Tatham, is located in
Houston, Texas. However, the Defendants point out that ...