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Jones v. IPX International Equatorial Guinea, S.A.

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

April 9, 2019

Paul Jones, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
IPX International Equatorial Guinea, S.A., Defendant-Appellee.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan at Ann Arbor. No. 5:17-cv-12483-John Corbett O'Meara, District Judge.

          ON BRIEF: Dean Elliott, DEAN ELLIOTT, PLC, Royal Oak, Michigan, for Appellant.

          Gaëtan Gerville-Réache, WARNER NORCROSS JUDD LLP, Grand Rapids, Michigan, for Appellee.

          Before: BATCHELDER, McKEAGUE, and NALBANDIAN, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          MCKEAGUE, CIRCUIT JUDGE

         Paul Jones is a United States citizen who chose to make his money abroad. In good times, he was happy to invest, work, and live in Equatorial Guinea. But when business soured, he hoped the United States would sweeten the deal. That hope did not pan out. After Jones sued his employer in the Eastern District of Michigan, the district court dismissed his complaint under the doctrine of forum non conveniens. Jones now asks us to reverse that decision. We are unconvinced that there was a clear abuse of discretion. We AFFIRM.

         I.

         Paul Jones is a Michigan citizen who has worked overseas most of his professional life. He began working in Equatorial Guinea around 2007. In 2011, he started a company-IPX International Equatorial Guinea, S.A.-to provide telecommunication and internet services in Equatorial Guinea. As its name suggests, IPX International Equatorial Guinea, S.A. is incorporated in Equatorial Guinea and its principal place of business is in the country's capital. Like many founders, Jones wore several hats at his company, including shareholder, director, and employee.

         This case is about Jones's role as an employee. Jones worked as a Director General under an annual contract. Each year, Jones negotiated and signed his contract in Equatorial Guinea. He then lived and worked there during the contract's term.

         Jones and his company both did quite well, but financial success could not sustain the relationship. IPX International decided in 2015 to open a subsidiary in the United States. Given his ties to Michigan, Jones urged the company to open the subsidiary there. IPX International agreed and sent Jones to Michigan to set up shop. That was supposed to take six months. Jones would then return to Equatorial Guinea. But after Jones arrived in Michigan, IPX International learned that he may have been stealing money and neglecting important business relationships. The company then suspended Jones so it could investigate.

         For his part, Jones claims that the suspension was a pretext to divest him of his stock and that IPX International breached his employment contract. He thus sued for breach of contract in the Eastern District of Michigan. The district court found that the case should be tried in Equatorial Guinea and dismissed the complaint under forum non conveniens. Jones now appeals that decision.

         II.

         Forum non conveniens decisions are "committed to the sound discretion of the trial court." Piper Aircraft Co. v. Reyno, 454 U.S. 235, 257 (1981). We thus review for "clear abuse of discretion." Zions First Nat'l Bank v. Moto Diesel Mexicana, S.A. de C.V., 629 F.3d 520, 523 (6th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted). Under that standard, we give "substantial deference" to the district court when it considers all relevant interests and balances those interests reasonably. Piper Aircraft, 454 U.S. at 257.

         III.

         Forum non conveniens is a common law doctrine that allows a district court not to exercise its jurisdiction. Hefferan v. Ethicon Endo-Surgery Inc., 828 F.3d 488, 492 (6th Cir. 2016) (quotation omitted). In the federal system, forum non conveniens has been largely replaced by a statutory scheme that allows district courts to dismiss or transfer cases when better forums are available. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1404(a) and 1406(a). Forum non conveniens operates similarly to that statutory scheme, nonetheless it is distinct. It generally applies when the alternative forum is in a foreign country, rather than in a different district within the federal system. Sinochem Int'l Co. v. Malaysia Int'l Shipping Corp., 549 U.S. 422, 430 (2007) (quotations omitted).

         When courts apply forum non conveniens, there are three considerations: (1) whether an adequate alternative forum is available; (2) whether a balance of private and public interests suggests that trial in the chosen forum would be unnecessarily burdensome for the defendant or the court; and (3) the amount of deference to give the plaintiff's choice of forum. Sometimes we call those considerations part of a three-step analysis. Hefferan, 828 F.3d at 492. Other times we frame the first two considerations as steps and then separately address deference to the plaintiff's choice of forum. See Wong v. PartyGaming Ltd., 589 F.3d 821, 830 (6th Cir. 2009) (citation omitted); Duha ...


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