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D.C. Trial Court Erred in Granting Dismissal on Ground of Forum Non Conveniens

William Garcia v. AA Roofing Co., LLC
No. CAB1337-14 (September 10, 2015, District of Columbia Court of Appeals)

by Caroline E. Willsey, Law Clerk
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at: http://www.dccourts.gov/internet/documents/14-CV-1095.pdf

In Garcia v. AA Roofing Co., LLC, the D.C. Court of Appeals reviewed the dismissal of a complaint alleging breach of contract, violation of the Virginia Consumer Protection Act, fraud, and common law conspiracy to defraud. Appellant, William Garcia, a resident of Fairfax County, Virginia, sued Holger Kuessner, AA Roofing Company, LLC (“AA Roofing”), and Wayne Hammond (AA Roofing’s owner and principal manager) to recover damages arising out of work done on the roof of Appellant’s home in March 2011. The Superior Court dismissed the action on the grounds of forum non conveniens.

Garcia appealed the dismissal, contending that the court (1) failed to consider the facts in the light most favorable to him; (2) erroneously failed to give any deference to his choice of forum; (3) erroneously failed to give any weight to the “defendants’ significant relationships to the District of Columbia,” and the “significant relationship between the plaintiff’s causes of action and the District of Columbia; and (4) erroneously shifted the burden of proof. The Court of Appeals agreed with Garcia, and reversed the Superior Court’s dismissal.

The relevant facts are as follows. In June 2010, Kuessner was introduced to Garcia as the owner of a home improvement company doing business in the District of Columbia. Upon learning that Garcia needed to repair damage to the roof of his residence, Kuessner allegedly, “aggressively made efforts to divert the roofing work” to another company, AA Roofing. Kuessner claimed to have personal knowledge that the company performed quality work at “good” prices. Kuessner offered to have AA Roofing provide a free estimate to Garcia. Kuessner subsequently contacted Wayne Hammond, a Maryland resident and the owner of AA Roofing, to request that Hammond send him an estimate for Garcia’s roof. AA Roofing held itself out as a “local roofing company in Washington, D.C.”

In August 2010, Kuessner forwarded Hammond’s estimate for the roof to Garcia. The following spring, Kuessner contacted AA Roofing directly. AA Roofing replaced Garcia’s roof in March 2011.

Over two (2) years later, in July 2013, Garcia learned that the roof had been improperly installed. Garcia filed the lawsuit in the instant case in March 2014. In June 2014, AA Roofing and Hammond moved to dismiss Garcia’s complaint on the basis of forum non conveniens. Because the events giving rise to Garcia’s claims occurred in Virginia, Hammond and AA Roofing argued that Virginia substantive law applied and that Virginia was the only proper forum.

As the Court noted, the purpose of the forum non conveniens doctrineis to “avoid litigation in a seriously inconvenient forum, rather than to ensure litigation in the most convenient forum.” In resolving a motion to dismiss on such ground, a court should consider the following private interest factors: (1) plaintiff’s choice of forum; (2) the convenience of the parties and witnesses; (3) the ease of access to sources of proof; (4) the availability and cost of compulsory process; and (5) the enforceability of any judgment obtained. Courts should also consider the following public interest factors: (1) the clearance of foreign controversies from congested dockets; (2) the adjudication of disputes in the forum most closely linked thereto; and (3) avoidance of saddling courts with the burden of construing a foreign jurisdiction’s law. Unless consideration of the above factors weighs heavily in favor of the defendants, the plaintiff’s choice of forum “should rarely be disturbed.” In such a case, the trial court should evaluate the defendants’ contacts with the District of Columbia in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Additionally, the burden should be on the defendants to demonstrate why dismissal is warranted for forum non conveniens. In the District of Columbia, it is only appropriate to shift the burden to plaintiff to justify bringing the suit if: (1) no party resides in the District, and (2) “there is virtually no link” to the District.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court on several grounds. First, the Court of Appeals concluded that, although it correctly articulated the legal standard, the trial court failed to analyze several key factual allegations. Specifically, the trial court failed to address (1) Garcia’s allegation that Kuessner sent correspondence and made phone calls from his office in the District to urge Garcia to hire AA Roofing, (2) AA Roofing’s holding itself out as a “local roofing company in Washington, D.C.” and (3) Garcia’s allegation that Hammond and AA Roofing “regularly and systematically performed roofing services in the District.”

Second, the trial court’s conclusion that Virginia, rather than the District, is the “ideal forum for the plaintiff to bring suit,” demonstrated its flawed application of the standard for dismissal on the basis of forum non conveniens. The issue was not whether Virginia was a more convenient forum, but whether the District was a seriously inconvenient forum.

Third, the trial court erroneously shifted the burden of proof to Garcia. When no party to a lawsuit filed in the District of Columbia lives in the District, and when a plaintiff’s claim has arisen in another jurisdiction, which has more substantial contacts with the cause of action, the burden of proof may shift from the defendant to the plaintiff. Here, however, the trial court improperly ignored the fact that one of the defendants, Kuessner, was a District resident. The trial court also failed to consider that Kuessner was working out of his District office when he persuaded Garcia to use the services of AA Roofing, and that AA Roofing held itself out as a “local roofing company in Washington, D.C.” Had the court properly considered these facts, it would not have been able to conclude that there was “virtually no link” between the causes of action alleged and the District.

Fourth, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court did not “reasonably evaluate” the public interest factors at stake in granting the motion to dismiss. In reasoning that there was no relationship between the cause of action and the District that could “justify the imposition of jury duty on its citizens,” the Court failed to consider “the interest of District residents in holding accountable defendants who engage in unfair trade practices involving a type of service the defendants also provide in the District of Columbia.”

Fifth, given the trial court’s estimation that there was no strong balance of the private interest factors in favor of the Appellees, the trial court erred in granting their motion to dismiss. Unless the balance of private interest factors weighs strongly in favor of the party moving to dismiss on grounds of forum non conveniens, the plaintiff/appellant’s forum choice should not be disturbed. Given that the trial court found “no potential obstacles to a fair trial and no evidence of intent on the part of the plaintiff to engage in harassing or vexatious litigation,” Garcia’s forum choice should have been left untouched.

Finally, the Court of Appeals found that the trial court gave undue weight to the administrative difficulties that would accrue from having to apply the substantive state law for Virginia in the District of Columbia’s courts. The Court of Appeals reasoned that courts in the District routinely adjudicate disputes among citizens of the District, Maryland, and Virginia, which often present choice of law and conflict of law issues.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded the case, not for further evaluation, but with instructions to deny Hammond and AA Roofing’s motion to dismiss based on forum non conveniens.


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