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IK Yacht Design, Inc. v. M/V Almost There (O.N. 1252895) (HIN: HATDH521A898)

United States District Court, D. Maine

November 15, 2019

IK YACHT DESIGN, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
M/V ALMOST THERE (O.N. 1252895) (HIN: HATDH521A898), her engines, boilers, tackle, appurtenances, electronics, etc. in rem, Defendant.

          ORDER ON IN REM DEFENDANT M/V ALMOST THERE'S MOTION TO DISMISS OR TRANSFER VENUE

          LANCE E. WALKER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Now before me is Vessel-Owner 15 Year Plan, LLC, appearing specially on behalf of the Defendant Vessel M/V Almost There's motion to dismiss or transfer venue of this case from the District of Maine to the Southern District of Florida (ECF No. 16). For the reasons that follow, I will GRANT the motion.

         BACKGROUND

         On August 27, 2019 Plaintiff IK Yacht Design Inc. filed an in rem action in this Court for unsatisfied admiralty and maritime liens against the M/V Almost There (O.N. 1252895) (HIN: HATDH521A898) for debts in excess of $194, 272.89, plus ongoing interest and penalties. The Almost There is a 74-foot Hatteras Motor Yacht built in 1998, and owned by 15 Year Plan, LLC, a Florida limited liability company owned, in turn, by Florida residents Andrew and Sherry Sturner.

         At bottom, this is a garden-variety contract dispute arising out of work IK Yacht Design performed for the Sturners on the Almost There between January 1 and June 20, 2019. Without having settled the dispute, the Sturners sailed the Almost There to Maine this August. Plaintiff then located the Vessel in this District and arrested her to foreclose the necessaries lien in accordance with the Supplemental Rules for in rem actions and the Commercial Instruments and Maritime Liens Act, 46 U.S.C. §§ 31431-31433 (the “Lien Act”); see also F.R.Civ.P. 9(h), and Rule C of the Supplemental Rules for Certain Admiralty and Maritime Claims.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a), a district court may “[f]or the convenience of parties and witnesses, in the interest of justice ... transfer any civil action to any other district or division where it might have been brought.” This statute “is intended to place discretion in the district court to adjudicate motions for transfer according to an ‘individualized, case-by-case consideration of convenience and fairness.'” Stewart Org., Inc. v. Ricoh Corp., 487 U.S. 22, 29 (1988) (quoting Van Dusen v. Barrack, 376 U.S. 612, 622 (1964)). In the exercise of that discretion, courts in the First Circuit consider not only “the convenience of parties and witnesses, ” but also “the availability of documents; the possibility of consolidation; and the order in which the district court obtained jurisdiction.” Coady v. Ashcraft & Gerel, 223 F.3d 1, 11 (1st Cir. 2000).

         “The burden of proof rests with the party seeking transfer” and, ordinarily, “there is a strong presumption in favor of the plaintiff's choice of forum.” Id. “The evidence presented by Defendant must weigh heavily in favor of transfer before this Court will disturb” that choice. Demont & Assocs. v. Berry, 77 F.Supp.2d 171, 173 (D. Me. 1999); see also Mercier v. Sheraton Intern., Inc., 981 F.2d 1345, 1354 (1st Cir. 1992) (noting that “the trial court must favor the plaintiff's choice of forum: unless the balance is strongly in favor of the defendant, the plaintiff's choice of forum should rarely be disturbed”).

         ANALYSIS

         1. In Rem Jurisdiction Under § 1404

         Because this is an in rem action brought in admiralty, I will pause briefly to discuss how that affects the parties' arguments concerning transfer.

         Before considering whether to transfer this case, I must be certain that the transferee district would have jurisdiction to hear it. The federal change-of-venue statute allows district courts to transfer a case only “to any other district or division where it might have been brought.” 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a) (emphasis added). Plaintiff argues the case could not “have been brought” in the Southern District of Florida because the vessel would have to be present in that District for the court to have jurisdiction. See, e.g., Rule C(2)(c), Supplemental Rules for Certain Admiralty and Maritime Claims (describing that the in rem complaint must “state that the property is within the district or will be within the district while the action is pending.”). This is true so far as it goes, but does not necessarily mean transfer is inappropriate under § 1404.

         Generally speaking, a maritime lien may be enforced only through an action in rem-that is, by proceeding against the vessel itself. See, e.g., 8-VII Joshua S. Force & Steven F. Friedell, Benedict on Admiralty § 7.01 (2017) (“Maritime liens do not exist apart from their ability to be enforced in rem in admiralty.”); The Rock Island Bridge, 73 U.S. (6 Wall.) 213, 215 (1867) (“The lien and the proceeding in rem are, therefore, correlative- where one exists, the other may be taken, and not otherwise.”). As Defendants indicate, “[a]n action in rem ... [t]o enforce [a] maritime lien” requires court officials to “arrest ... the vessel or other property that is the subject of the action.” Fed.R.Civ.P. Supp. Adm. R. C (1)(a), (3)(a)(i). The question here is whether transfer is appropriate even though Plaintiff may not have been able to bring this in rem action to exercise its lien in the Southern District of Florida in the first place.

         The Supreme Court has resolved this issue. In Continental Grain Co. v. The FBL-585, the Court upheld transfer of an in rem action from one district to another under § 1404(a) even though the in rem action could not “have been brought” initially in the transferee District, as the vessel was not located there when the plaintiff filed suit. 364 U.S. 19, 20-21, 26-27 (1960). The Court emphasized that making physical presence of the res an absolute jurisdictional requirement would merely have “provide[d] a shelter for in rem admiralty proceedings in costly and inconvenient forums.” Id. at 27. The Court has made clear that “[t]he fictions of in rem forfeiture were developed primarily to expand the reach of the courts and to furnish remedies for aggrieved parties.” Republic Nat'l Bank of Miami v. United States, 506 U.S. 80, 87 (1992). One “purpose[] of the fiction, among others, has been to allow actions against ships where a person owning the ship could not be reached.” Continental Grain, 364 U.S. at 23. Here, as in Continental Grain, “the fiction appears to have no relevance whatever in a District Court's determination of where a case can ...


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