How to Prevent Inmate Forum Shopping

By Kristina Doan Gruenberg

The venue in which a party decides to file case is often a strategic decision.  Forum shopping refers to the practice of a party deliberately searching through multiple courts or jurisdictions in order to file or transfer the case to one that is most likely to give that party the result he wants.  A party may choose a particular court because he or she thinks it has better laws, judges, and/or juries for a case.

Inmate cases pose unique venue issues.  For example, after an inmate is transferred to another facility, can his case be transferred to a court closer to him? What happens if an inmate claims that his safety is at risk by being forced to go to court in a certain region?

This article deals with venue rules for federal district court, where most inmate cases are brought, and how to prevent inmates from improper forum shopping.

Initial Filing of a Case
In general, the federal statute governing where a lawsuit may be initiated states that a civil action may be brought where any defendants reside, or where a substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to the claim occurred.  Therefore, for most inmate cases, the proper venue is the judicial district where the prison or jail of the incident at issue is located.

Transfers
Once the court has determined that venue is proper, the moving party must present strong grounds for transferring the action.

In order for a federal district court to transfer an action, the court must make the following two findings: (1) that the transferee court is one where the action “might have been brought,” and (2) that the convenience of the parties and witnesses and the interest of justice favor transfer.

The determination of “convenience” turns on a set of private and public factors, which include things such as:

  • Access to evidence
  • Cost of obtaining witnesses
  • Possibility to view premises, if appropriate
  • Court congestion
  • Local interest in resolving localized controversies at home

Example of Forum Shopping in Inmate Cases
In one case, an inmate moved to transfer venue just one month before trial. This was done most likely because Plaintiff was not obtaining rulings in his favor and wanted to try a new judge for trial.

Plaintiff argued that because he had been transferred to another institution, had health issues, could potentially obtain counsel from a law clinic in a different venue, and had safety concerns at his prior institution (where he believed he would be transferred back to while waiting for trial), the court should transfer his case from the Fresno Division of the Eastern District to the Sacramento Division of the Eastern District “for the convenience of the parties” and “in the interests of justice.”

Defendants opposed this motion, asserting that this would inconvenience all defendants and witnesses, who would have to travel to Sacramento.  It would also prejudice Defendants by improperly delaying trial because the case would be reassigned to a Sacramento judge.  Defendants also argued that even if Plaintiff had vague security concerns at one institution, there were several institutions in the Fresno area where Plaintiff’s health and safety needs could be met.  Finally, Defendants asserted that granting this request could encourage forum shopping in the future and an inmate could request a transfer in institutions to try to obtain a new judge for his case.  The court agreed with all of Defendants’ points and denied Plaintiff’s request.

In sum, an inmate or any litigant trying to change the forum for his litigation has a high burden.  Such requests should be opposed, especially if the transfer request is being done for strategic reasons midway through litigation or later.  In the above case, Sacramento might also be a more favorable venue for inmates, compared to the traditionally pro-law enforcement atmosphere in the Fresno courts.

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