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Spanier v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co.

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

May 8, 2017

GARY SPANIER, D.C. P.A., as assignee, individually, and on behalf of all those similarly situated, Plaintiff,
v.
STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          MARY M. ROWLAND United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Gary Spanier (“Plaintiff”) brings this single-count declaratory relief action against Defendant State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company (“State Farm”) on behalf of a proposed class of Florida health care providers who submitted claims to State Farm. State Farm moves to transfer this case to the Southern District of Florida pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). For the reasons set forth below, State Farm's motion to transfer [7] is GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff's Complaint alleges that State Farm's Florida Policy Form 9810A (the “Policy”) violates Florida's personal injury protection (PIP) statute (Fla. Stat. § 627.736 et seq.). Plaintiff contends that State Farm improperly used a fee schedule to limit reimbursements under automobile insurance policies issued by State Farm. Since 2008, Florida law has allowed an insurer to elect either of two payment methods-the permissive “Schedule of Maximum Charges” or the fact-dependent method-and since 2012, Florida law has required notice in PIP policies if the insurer limits payments under the fee schedules. (Dkt. 1, (Compl.) ¶¶ 17, 37).

         Plaintiff alleges that State Farm's Policy violates Florida law by failing to clearly and unambiguously elect the fee schedule method, and using it nevertheless as the sole method to calculate payments. (Id. ¶¶ 22, 74). Plaintiff claims he was harmed when “State Farm failed and/or refused to pay medical benefits at the rate of 80% of the reasonable amount, which Plaintiff was entitled to recover” under the Florida PIP statute and State Farm's PIP insurance policy. (Id. ¶ 35). The Complaint seeks declaratory relief on behalf of “Florida professional associations and citizens of Florida that provide treatment to persons who are insured by the Defendant…” (Id. ¶ 6).[1] Specifically, the proposed class consists of “[t]he health care providers in Florida who submitted claims to State Farm, for no-fault benefits under PIP Policies which were in effect between January 1, 2013 and the present, where State Farm solely utilized the Schedule of Maximum Charges method to calculate payments to the provider.” (Id. ¶ 57).

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Legal Standard

         “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 have consented.” 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). A court may transfer a case if venue is proper in both the transferor and the transferee courts and transfer is for the convenience of the parties and witnesses and in the interest of justice. Sickman v. Asset Recovery Sols., LLC, No. 14 C 9748, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 54870, at *2 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 27, 2015) (internal citations omitted). While the party moving for transfer has the burden to show the transferee forum is clearly more convenient, the court has discretion to weigh the various factors and § 1404(a) does not specify the relative weight the court should give each factor. Coffey v. Van Dorn Iron Works, 796 F.2d 217, 219- 220, n.3 (7th Cir. 1986). The transfer statute “permits a flexible and individualized analysis.” Research Automation, Inc. v. Schrader-Bridgeport Int'l, Inc., 626 F.3d 973, 978 (7th Cir. 2010) (internal citations and quotations omitted). District courts are thus granted “a substantial degree of deference” in balancing the private and public interest factors to determine whether transfer is appropriate. Id. at 978-79.

         B. The Private Interest Factors Weigh in Favor of Transfer

         Because the parties do not dispute that venue is proper in both the Northern District of Illinois and the Southern District of Florida (see Dkt. 8 at 5-6; Dkt. 31 at 13), the Court turns to the convenience of the parties and witnesses and the interest of justice. The relevant private interest factors are: “(1) the plaintiff's choice of forum; (2) the situs of material events; (3) the relative ease of access to sources of proof; (4) the convenience of the parties; and (5) the convenience of the witnesses.” Sickman, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 54870, at *3 (internal citations and quotations omitted). While a plaintiff's choice of forum is generally entitled to great weight (id.), Plaintiff's choice in this case is given minimal weight because this district is not Plaintiff's home forum, the conduct giving rise to the lawsuit did not conclusively arise in this forum, and a Florida Plaintiff proposes to represent a class of Florida health care providers, none of whom are alleged to reside in Illinois. See Id. at *4 (“because plaintiff and all potential class members are foreigners to Illinois and this district has limited contacts with the cause of action, the fact that plaintiff chose this district has little significance.”); see also Chambers v. N. Am. Co. for Life & Health Ins., No. 1:11 CV 3528, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133844, at *8 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 18, 2011) (“we afford Plaintiff's choice of forum little weight [because]…the chosen forum is not Plaintiff's home forum, Plaintiff represents a class, and the conduct giving rise to the cause of action did not conclusively occur in Plaintiff's chosen forum.”).

         The second factor, the situs of material events, favors transfer to the Southern District of Florida. To argue that Illinois is the situs of material events, Plaintiff argues that State Farm's headquarters are in Illinois, State Farm makes policy and management decisions in Illinois, and the Policy was executed in Illinois. (Dkt. 31 at 21-22). State Farm points out that its headquarters are in Bloomington, Illinois, in the Central District of Illinois. State Farm also states that its claim center and the claim handler that oversaw Plaintiff's claim are both located in Atlanta, Georgia. (Dkt. 8 at 7). Plaintiff does not dispute this. Indeed, Plaintiff's September 3, 2015 demand letter was addressed to State Farm's “PIP Demand Notice Unit” in Atlanta, Georgia. (Compl., Exh. D). While State Farm's President and Secretary signed the Policy in Bloomington, Illinois, the State Farm agent and the insureds are all located in Florida. (Dkt. 7-1 at 3-4 (Exh. A to Mot.)). Even if the Policy was “executed in Illinois, ” as Plaintiff argues, that is not proof that the situs of material events is here, particularly when Plaintiff argues that “the negotiation and sale of the policy is not at issue” in this case. (Dkt. 31 at 17) (emphasis added). Instead, Plaintiff says, “[t]he only issue is whether the Defendant paid the claim based on a proper formula under the wording of the policy and the No-Fault statute…” (Id. at 18).

         While neither party offers evidence that conclusively shows where the material events occurred, the undisputed facts show that most if not all of the events occurred in Florida and Georgia because the Florida Policy was issued to the insureds in Florida, assigned to Plaintiff in Florida, and the claim center and handler that handled Plaintiff's claim were in Atlanta, Georgia. (Atlanta is significantly closer to Florida than to Chicago). See Nero v. Am. Family Mut. Ins. Co., No. 11 C 1072, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 78104 at *7-8 (N.D. Ill. July 19, 2011) (granting motion to transfer a proposed class action challenging an insurance policy as violative of Colorado's PIP statute in part because the case involved plaintiff's “acquisition in Colorado of a Colorado insurance policy and the adjustment of [plaintiff's] insurance claim in Colorado.”). Significantly, no events took place in the Northern District of Illinois.[2]

         The third factor, the relative ease of access to sources of proof, is neutral. State Farm argues that the relevant witnesses and evidence are primarily located in the Southern District of Florida, and none of the witnesses or documents are in the Northern District of Illinois. (Dkt. 8 at 7, Dkt. 35 at 3-5). Plaintiff counters that documentary evidence is “largely irrelevant” in this case. (Dkt. 31 at 14). This Court agrees with other courts that have found this factor to be neutral because “documents are easily transferrable, ” and State Farm does not argue otherwise. See Nero, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 78104 at *8; Cont'l Cas. Co. v. Staffing Concepts, Inc., No. 06 C 5473, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86370, at *15 (N.D. Ill. Sep. 18, 2009).

         The fourth and fifth factors, the convenience of the parties and of the witnesses, favor transfer. Plaintiff argues that State Farm “fails to identify a party employee, class member, or non-party witness whose convenience the Court should consider; and it fails to offer any discussion of the relevance of their testimony.” (Dkt. 31 at 16). State Farm identifies two nonparty witnesses, Dallas and Christina Norris, the insureds who were treated by Plaintiff, and also says it expects to seek testimony from other medical providers and insureds in Florida. (Dkt. 8 at 8, Dkt. 35 at 5). The Court is most persuaded by the fact that both Plaintiff and the entire class he seeks to represent are in Florida. See Sickman, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 54870, at *8 (“the court is most concerned with the convenience of the putative class members whom plaintiff seeks to represent.”); Tawil v. Ill. Tool Works Inc., No. 15 C 06808, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 162721, at *10 (N.D. Ill.Dec. 4, 2015) (finding that the convenience of the witnesses and parties weighed in favor of transfer to New Jersey because the class members that plaintiff proposed to represent were “most likely in New Jersey, or relatively nearby.”); AL & PO Corp. v. Am. Healthcare Capital, Inc., No. 14 C 1905, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 19922, at *6-7 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 19, 2015) (“unnamed class members presumably benefit from a class representative who is able to aggressively litigate their claims without significant inconvenience due to travel.”); Cf. Rana v. Coll. Admissions ...


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