Dave Dambreville ()
The choice of venue is a key strategic question in any litigation. In fact, there are few choices more important than that of determining where a lawsuit will be tried.
But the issue of proper venue is often overlooked or, at least, not fully appreciated by parties to a lawsuit. This is true in light of the fact that the choice of venue can have a dramatic effect on the outcome of any given case. For instance, venue decisions directly affect the makeup of juries, which vary widely from county to county. And one county’s jury may share views that favor one party in an action over another. Another consideration is whether witnesses are able to travel to a given venue. Pennsylvania is a large state; for some witnesses, traveling from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia might not be feasible.
Given the potential for establishing an unlevel playing field, parties to a lawsuit should be diligent in selecting the appropriate forum. Yet what often occurs is that the first party to file ultimately decides the venue. And ordinarily courts give great weight to a plaintiff’s selection. Still, in light of the stakes, it is in a defendant’s best interest to assess a plaintiff’s venue decision and either challenge or accept venue.
Plaintiffs often bring actions in one county over another based on their belief that the selected venue will be more favorable to their case. There is no ironclad evidence to support this general belief, but forum selection is widely used in the legal profession. Nonetheless, the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure are clear on the issue of venue. Rule 1006 requires that a lawsuit be brought in a county where the defendant could be served, where the cause of action arose, or where the transaction that led to the lawsuit took place.
In a recent decision, the Pennsylvania Superior Court addressed the issue of venue based on underlying transactions. With that decision, the court found that venue was proper, although, technically, Rule 1006 had not been satisfied. Specifically, the court’s decision in Scarlett v. Mason, 2014 Pa. Super. 76 (Apr. 14, 2014), examined the issue of venue where neither service on the defendant, the cause of action nor the underlying transactions had occurred in the county in which the case was filed.
In Scarlett, the plaintiff, Richard P. Scarlett, and the defendant, P. Gregory Mason, were both truck drivers working for a company located in New Jersey. In 2008, while at their workplace, Scarlett and Mason entered into an agreement to purchase a John Deere tractor. As part of the agreement, Scarlett was to repair and rebuild the tractor’s engine. Over the course of a few years, Scarlett performed the repairs to the tractor while at his home in Snyder County, Pa. Upon completion, Scarlett invited Mason to his home, at which time he provided Mason with a bill for parts and labor.
In 2013, Scarlett filed a complaint in the Snyder County Court of Common Pleas alleging that Mason had failed to pay the balance due, in breach of their agreement. The complaint was served on Mason at his home in Franklin County, Pa. In response to the complaint, Mason filed preliminary objections raising improper venue in Snyder County under Rule 1006. The basis of Mason’s objections was that: first, he could not be served in Snyder County; and second, the cause of action as well as the underlying transactions occurred in New Jersey. Mason sought to have the complaint dismissed or, in the alternative, transferred to the proper venue. The trial court, however, overruled his objection.
The Superior Court later affirmed the trial court’s ruling and, in doing so, reinforced its rule of basing venue on the parties’ probable intention. This rule was first put forth in Lucas Enterprises v. Paul C. Harman, 273 Pa. Super. 422 (1980). In that case, the court found that within the context of contract disputes, the parties’ probable intention was to have payment due at the plaintiff’s home or workplace. In light of this finding, the court held that proper venue could be based on a plaintiff’s home or workplace.
The rule elicited in Lucas has undoubtedly created more venue options for plaintiffs. But perhaps the courts should take steps to restrict these options. While it is true that a plaintiff’s choice of forum is to be afforded great weight, courts have acknowledged that choice of venue is not absolute. Through their pleadings, defendants commonly urge courts to require plaintiffs to establish more than a probable intention to support their venue choice. Yet these arguments often fall on deaf ears.
Generally, plaintiffs must provide a factual basis, beyond that of a mere belief, to show that venue is proper. But, in light of the rule reiterated in Scarlett, defendants to a contractual dispute are playing on an unlevel field with regard to venue challenges.
In summary, where plaintiffs to a contract dispute bring lawsuits in their home venue, the court will go to great lengths to expand the interpretation of Rule 1006 to encompass that venue. As the ruling in Scarlett made clear, venue is proper where the complaint is filed, even if the parties’ intentions regarding the underlying transactions are not so clear. By relying on the theory of probable intention, the court in Scarlett has shifted the interpretation of Rule 1006 and exponentially increased the venue and strategic options for plaintiffs.
Dave Dambreville is an associate with Kimmel & Silverman, where he concentrates on consumer protection litigation involving fair debt collection practices. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.