Center for Environmental Health et al v. Nishida et al

Filing 38

Order GRANTING 33 defendants motion to transfer venue to the Eastern District of North Carolina. Signed by Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton on May 9, 2022. (pjhlc1, COURT STAFF) (Filed on 5/9/2022)

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Case 4:21-cv-01535-PJH Document 38 Filed 05/09/22 Page 1 of 11 1 2 3 4 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 5 NORTHERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA 6 7 8 CENTER FOR ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH, et al., Case No. 21-cv-01535-PJH Plaintiffs, ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS’ MOTION TO TRANSFER VENUE 9 v. 10 United States District Court Northern District of California 11 12 ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY, et al., Re: Dkt. No. 33 Defendants. 13 14 15 Before the court is defendants’ motion to transfer venue. The matter is fully 16 briefed and suitable for decision without oral argument. Accordingly, the hearing set for 17 May 5, 2022, was previously vacated. Having read the parties’ papers and carefully 18 considered their arguments and the relevant legal authority, and good cause appearing, 19 the court hereby rules as follows. 20 BACKGROUND 21 This Toxic Substances Control Act (“TSCA”) case concerns testing related to 22 alleged chemical exposures in North Carolina. Specifically, plaintiffs petitioned the 23 United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) to initiate a rulemaking 24 proceeding or issue an order compelling health and environmental-effects testing 25 regarding chemical substances allegedly released into the Cape Fear River watershed. 26 This lawsuit challenges EPA’s administrative responses to the petition. 27 Plaintiff Center for Environmental Health (“CEH”) is a non-profit organization 28 working to protect children and families from harmful chemicals in air, food, water, and in Case 4:21-cv-01535-PJH Document 38 Filed 05/09/22 Page 2 of 11 1 everyday products. FAC (Dkt. 32) ¶ 15. CEH is headquartered in Oakland, California, 2 but members of its staff work in North Carolina. Plaintiff Cape Fear River Watch 3 (“CFRW”) is a grassroots environmental nonprofit based in Wilmington, North Carolina, 4 and its mission is to protect and improve the water quality of the Cape Fear River Basin 5 for all people through education, advocacy, and action. FAC ¶ 16. Plaintiff Clean Cape 6 Fear (“CCF”) is an all-volunteer, grassroots community group based in the Wilmington 7 area. FAC ¶ 17. Plaintiff Democracy Green (“DG”) is an organization created and run by 8 native North Carolinians-of-color to address the systemic impacts burdening 9 disenfranchised communities across North Carolina. FAC ¶ 18. Plaintiff The NC Black Alliance (“NCBA”) is a group working toward state-level systemic change by 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 strengthening the network of elected officials representing communities of color 12 throughout the state of North Carolina and collaborating with progressive, grassroots 13 networks on intersecting issues. FAC ¶ 19. Plaintiff Toxic Free NC (“TFNC”) is an 14 organization advancing environmental health and justice in North Carolina by advocating 15 for safe alternatives to harmful pesticides and chemicals. FAC ¶ 20. Defendants are the 16 EPA and Michael Regan, who is named in his official capacity as Administrator of EPA. 17 FAC ¶¶ 21, 22. Regan was substituted for Jane Nishida, previous Administrator of EPA, 18 pursuant to FRCP 25(d). Dkt. 15. 19 EPA and other leading authorities consider per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances 20 (“PFAS”), a class of chemicals, a serious threat to human health and the environment but 21 recognize that, while some high-profile PFAS have been shown to have harmful effects, 22 very few substances in the class have been tested to determine their impacts on exposed 23 people and wildlife. Section 4 of the Toxic Substances Control Act (“TSCA”) gives EPA 24 authority to require PFAS manufacturers to fund this testing. 15 U.S.C. § 2603(a)(1). 25 In October 2020, plaintiffs petitioned EPA to initiate a rulemaking proceeding or 26 issue an order under TSCA section 4(a)(1)(A)(i) to compel The Chemours Company 27 (“Chemours”) to fund and carry out health and environmental-effects testing on 54 PFAS 28 that, plaintiffs allege, are manufactured by Chemours at its chemical production facility in 2 Case 4:21-cv-01535-PJH Document 38 Filed 05/09/22 Page 3 of 11 1 Fayetteville, North Carolina, and discharged from the facility into the Cape Fear River. 2 FAC ¶¶ 1-2, 7. Plaintiffs’ requested testing would include studies of downstream 3 communities in North Carolina that, they allege, were exposed to PFAS-contaminated 4 drinking water. FAC ¶ 60. Plaintiffs also proposed that EPA ask the National Academy 5 of Sciences to create an independent science panel to oversee the testing program. FAC 6 ¶ 61. 7 In January 2021, EPA denied the petition because, among other issues, “the 8 petitioners have not provided the facts necessary for the Agency to determine for each of 9 the 54 PFAS that existing information and experience are insufficient and testing of such substance or mixture with respect to such effects is necessary to develop such 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 information.” FAC ¶ 64. 12 In March 2021, plaintiffs initiated this lawsuit seeking judicial review of the January 13 2021 denial and requested that EPA reconsider its decision to deny the administrative 14 petition. FAC ¶¶ 4-5. EPA granted plaintiffs’ reconsideration request, and, upon 15 stipulation of the parties, the court placed this case in abeyance while EPA completed its 16 reconsideration action. Dkt. 25. 17 On December 28, 2021, after reconsidering the agency’s prior January 2021 18 denial, EPA granted the administrative petition and communicated the decision in a letter 19 to counsel for plaintiffs. FAC ¶ 79. EPA’s December 2021 grant of the petition was too 20 narrow to satisfy plaintiffs, however, requiring testing of only seven of the 54 substances 21 proposed in the petition. Plaintiffs then filed the now-operative amended complaint, 22 seeking judicial review of both EPA’s January 2021 denial and EPA’s December 2021 23 grant of the petition. FAC ¶ 9. The FAC asserts one claim under TSCA section 21. FAC 24 ¶¶ 121-31. Plaintiffs seek declaratory relief, an order directing EPA to initiate a 25 proceeding for the issuance of a rule or order under TSCA section 4 requiring Chemours 26 to conduct the studies requested in the petition, and an award of costs. FAC at 31-32. 27 In the instant motion, defendants ask the court for a discretionary transfer to the 28 Eastern District of North Carolina, home to the Cape Fear River watershed and most of 3 Case 4:21-cv-01535-PJH Document 38 Filed 05/09/22 Page 4 of 11 1 the plaintiffs. Plaintiffs resist transfer on the basis that one of the plaintiff organizations 2 maintains a headquarters in Oakland in addition to its office in North Carolina. If the court 3 grants transfer, plaintiffs ask that the matter be transferred to the District of Columbia, 4 home of the defendant agency’s headquarters. DISCUSSION 5 6 7 A. Legal Standard A motion for discretionary transfer of venue from one district to another is 8 governed by Title 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a), which states: “For the convenience of parties and 9 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.” In contrast to motions 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 challenging venue as improper, the party seeking discretionary transfer generally bears 12 the burden of showing that transfer is appropriate. Jones v. GNC Franchising, Inc., 211 13 F.3d 495, 499 (9th Cir. 2000) (noting the moving party failed to meet its burden of 14 showing the alternate forum “was the more appropriate forum for the action”). 15 Under the plain text of the statute, the moving party must make two showings to 16 justify transfer. First, the transferee forum must be one in which the case “might have 17 been brought.” Hoffman v. Blaski, 363 U.S. 335, 344 (1960). “In determining whether an 18 action ‘might have been brought’ in a district, the court looks to whether the action initially 19 could have been commenced in that district.” Hatch v. Reliance Ins. Co., 758 F.2d 409, 20 414 (9th Cir. 1985). 21 Second, provided the case could have been brought in the proposed transferee 22 forum, the movant must persuade the court that considerations of “convenience of parties 23 and witnesses” and “the interest of justice” weigh in favor of transfer. Earth Island Inst. v. 24 Quinn, 56 F. Supp. 3d 1110, 1117 (N.D. Cal. 2014). The Ninth Circuit has identified the 25 following specific but non-exhaustive factors which “the court may consider” in analyzing 26 those overarching statutory considerations: 27 28 (1) the location where the relevant agreements were negotiated and executed, (2) the state that is most familiar with the governing law, (3) the plaintiff’s choice of forum, (4) the 4 Case 4:21-cv-01535-PJH Document 38 Filed 05/09/22 Page 5 of 11 respective parties’ contacts with the forum, (5) the contacts relating to the plaintiff’s cause of action in the chosen forum, (6) the differences in the costs of litigation in the two forums, (7) the availability of compulsory process to compel attendance of unwilling non-party witnesses, . . . (8) the ease of access to sources of proof . . . [9] the presence of a forum selection clause . . . [and 10] the relevant public policy of the forum state, if any.” 1 2 3 4 5 Jones, 211 F.3d at 498-99. A district court is not restricted to the pleadings on a motion to transfer and may 6 7 consider “undisputed facts supported by affidavits, depositions, stipulations, or other 8 relevant documents.” FastCap, LLC v. Snake River Tool Co., LLC, No. 15-CV-02764- 9 JSC, 2015 WL 6828196, at *2 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 6, 2015). Section 1404(a) affords the court broad discretion “to adjudicate motions for transfer according to an ‘individualized, case- 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 by-case consideration of convenience and fairness.’” Jones, 211 F.3d at 498 (quoting 12 Stewart Org. v. Ricoh Corp., 487 U.S. 22, 29 (1988)). 13 B. 14 Analysis The two steps in the § 1404(a) assessment, determining (1) whether the case 15 could have been brought elsewhere and (2) whether transfer to another district would 16 serve the convenience of the parties and witnesses as well as the interest of justice, are 17 considered in turn. 18 1. Section 1391(e) 19 “In determining whether an action might have been brought in a district, the court 20 looks to whether the action initially could have been commenced in that district.” Hatch v. 21 Reliance Ins. Co., 758 F.2d 409, 414 (9th Cir. 1985). In civil actions against the United 22 States or its agencies or officers, venue is proper in any judicial district where (1) “a 23 defendant in the action resides”; (2) “a substantial part of the events or omissions giving 24 rise to the claim occurred, or a substantial part of property that is the subject of the action 25 is situated”; or (3) a “plaintiff resides if no real property is involved in the action.” 28 26 U.S.C. § 1391(e)(1). 27 Defendants argue that this case could have been brought in the Eastern District of 28 North Carolina for two reasons. First, at least two of the plaintiff entities are based in the 5 Case 4:21-cv-01535-PJH Document 38 Filed 05/09/22 Page 6 of 11 1 Wilmington area, which falls within that district’s boundaries. Plaintiff Cape Fear River 2 Watch is based in Wilmington, and plaintiff Clean Cape Fear is based in the Wilmington 3 area, and all but one of the remaining plaintiffs is similarly based in North Carolina. FAC 4 ¶¶ 16-20. Second, a substantial part of the events giving rise to plaintiffs’ claim under the 5 TSCA occurred in the Eastern District of North Carolina. Plaintiffs seek a rule or order 6 compelling a facility in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to conduct testing concerning 7 chemical substances allegedly discharged into the Cape Fear River watershed, which is 8 substantially located within the jurisdiction of the Eastern District of North Carolina. FAC 9 ¶¶ 55, 57. Further, the alleged harm was suffered by North Carolina residents and wildlife in the Cape Fear River watershed. FAC ¶¶ 59-60, 62. Venue in the Eastern 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 District of North Carolina would have been proper for both these reasons. 12 2. Convenience 13 Here, the parties’ arguments center on the weight the court should place on each 14 (a) plaintiffs’ choice of forum, (b) the court most familiar with the administrative law at 15 issue, (c) ease of access to evidence, including the potential for evidence from outside 16 the administrative record, and (d) the contacts related to plaintiffs’ cause of action in this 17 forum. 18 19 a. Plaintiffs’ Choice of Forum Generally, the court gives “great weight” to a plaintiff’s choice of forum, especially 20 when there are strong contacts between the chosen forum and the dispute. See Lou v. 21 Belzberg, 834 F.2d 730, 739 (9th Cir. 1987). However, “[i]f the operative facts have not 22 occurred within the forum and the forum has no interest in the parties or subject matter, 23 [the plaintiffs’] choice is entitled to only minimal consideration.” Lou, 834 F.2d at 739 24 (citing Pacific Car & Foundry Co. v. Pence, 403 F.2d 949, 954 (9th Cir. 1968)). 25 Furthermore, “[i]f there is any indication that plaintiff’s choice of forum is the result of 26 forum shopping, plaintiff’s choice will be accorded little deference.” Williams v. Bowman, 27 157 F. Supp. 2d 1103, 1106 (N.D. Cal. 2001). 28 6 Case 4:21-cv-01535-PJH Document 38 Filed 05/09/22 Page 7 of 11 Here, plaintiffs’ sole cause of action is completely disconnected from the Northern 2 District of California. The operative facts of the case arise from plaintiffs’ petition seeking 3 testing of environmental impacts in the Cape Fear River Basin, within the geographic 4 boundaries of the Eastern District of North Carolina. The underlying chemical substance 5 exposures and the effects of any required testing will be felt by communities in North 6 Carolina. In contrast, none of the operative facts giving rise to plaintiffs’ cause of action 7 took place here. Plaintiffs do not allege that any of EPA’s consideration of their petition 8 seeking the testing took place in California. The only connection between the case and 9 this forum is the Oakland office of one of the several North-Carolina-based plaintiff 10 entities. Though plaintiffs appear to have satisfied the barest of § 1391(e)’s venue 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 1 requirements based on the Oakland office of CEH, their choice of forum is entitled to little 12 deference. 13 14 b. Court Familiarity with TSCA Plaintiffs suggest that this district is particularly experienced with the applicable 15 law under the TSCA based on two cases considered by Judge Chen. See Food & Water 16 Watch, Inc. v. United States Env’t Prot. Agency, 291 F. Supp. 3d 1033 (N.D. Cal. 2017); 17 Asbestos Disease Awareness Org. v. Wheeler, 508 F. Supp. 3d 707 (N.D. Cal. 2020). 18 However, plaintiffs do not identify any complex issues in this action or unique 19 mechanisms inherent to this court that would suggest that the case is more suitable for 20 this court to handle over a federal court in another state. Plaintiffs’ single claim does not 21 arise from California law or any other substantive law that would make this district more 22 suited to consider this administrative law case. Plaintiff offers no Ninth Circuit authority 23 providing guidance to interpret and apply the TSCA. Rather, the TSCA is a federal law of 24 wide applicability, for which the judges of the Eastern District of North Carolina are 25 similarly and aptly qualified to apply. Whether the case remains here or is transferred, 26 the presiding court would likely consider Judge Chen’s cases in the same way—for their 27 persuasive authority. No judicial economy would be gained by litigating here. Therefore, 28 this factor does not weigh against transfer. 7 Case 4:21-cv-01535-PJH Document 38 Filed 05/09/22 Page 8 of 11 1 2 c. Ease of Access to Witnesses and Evidence With respect to convenience of the witnesses, “[t]he relative convenience to the witnesses is often recognized as the most important factor to be considered in ruling on a 4 motion under section 1404(a).” Saleh v. Titan Corp., 361 F. Supp. 2d 1152, 1160 (S.D. 5 Cal. 2005) (citation omitted). “Importantly, ‘[w]hile the convenience of party witnesses is 6 a factor to be considered, the convenience of non-party witnesses is the more important 7 factor.’” Id. (alteration in original) (quoting Aquatic Amusement Assocs., Ltd. v. Walt 8 Disney World Co., 734 F. Supp. 54, 57 (N.D.N.Y. 1990)). “In determining whether this 9 factor weighs in favor of transfer, the court must consider not simply how many witnesses 10 each side has and location of each, but, rather, the court must consider the importance of 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 3 the witnesses.” Saleh, 361 F. Supp. 2d at 1160-61 (citations omitted). In establishing 12 inconvenience to witnesses, the moving party must name the witnesses, state their 13 location, and explain their testimony and its relevance. Carolina Cas. Co. v. Data Broad. 14 Corp., 158 F. Supp. 2d 1044, 1049 (N.D. Cal. 2001) (citation omitted). 15 Though the parties dispute the importance of this convenience factor, there exists 16 little dispute regarding documentary evidence. See Byler v. Deluxe Corp., 222 F. Supp. 17 3d 885, 906-07 (S.D. Cal. 2016) (“Ease of access to evidence is generally not a 18 predominate concern in evaluating whether to transfer venue because “advances in 19 technology have made it easy for documents to be transferred to different locations.” 20 (citation and quotation marks omitted)). Instead, defendants declare their intent to 21 depose plaintiffs and potentially their members related to the groups’ standing, including 22 depositions of members located in North Carolina. Plaintiffs unconvincingly suggest that 23 defendants’ depositions regarding standing can take place in North Carolina even if the 24 case is being heard in this district. The convenience of those member witnesses weighs 25 slightly in favor of transfer. 26 Additionally, though this case seeks review of an administrative decision, 27 defendants contend that there will likely be a dispute regarding introduction of evidence 28 beyond the administrative record as there has been in similar TSCA cases. See, e.g., 8 Case 4:21-cv-01535-PJH Document 38 Filed 05/09/22 Page 9 of 11 1 Food & Water Watch, Inc., 302 F. Supp. 3d at 1061. And if the court considers evidence 2 outside of the administrative record, witnesses and evidence based in North Carolina 3 become more relevant, including potential witnesses from the Chemours facility. 4 Plaintiffs aver that this argument from defendants amounts to a bait-and-switch—EPA 5 here seeks transfer of the case based on extra-record testimony, but once in North 6 Carolina, EPA will resist introduction of such testimony. In response, defendants 7 highlight that plaintiffs themselves plan to introduce extra-record evidence in the form of 8 expert scrutiny of EPA’s determinations. 9 Here, the court abstains from assessing whether extra-record evidence will be considered. Rather, the court to decide the case should make its own determination of 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 that issue after the pleading stage. The potential need for discovery into the North 12 Carolina plaintiffs’ standing is sufficient to tip this factor in favor of transfer. Defendants 13 identify two potential non-party witnesses in North Carolina, both employees of 14 Chemours, whose residency weighs even greater in favor of transfer. See Dkt. 33-1 at 3. 15 Plaintiffs’ arguments regarding the potential scope of discovery betray the likelihood of 16 discovery disputes and the potential difficulty in attempting to litigate this case so far from 17 the location giving rise to their original petition. Should discovery disputes ensue, this 18 court lacks authority to compel attendance of unwilling non-party witnesses thousands of 19 miles away. Therefore, the ease of access to witnesses weighs in favor of transferring 20 the case to the Eastern District of North Carolina. 21 22 d. Contacts Related to Plaintiffs’ Cause of Action in this Forum and Local Interest in the Controversy 23 The operative complaint contains several allegations regarding PFAS 24 contamination in the Cape Fear River watershed. FAC ¶¶ 47-54. Plaintiffs request 25 specific health and environmental testing regarding chemical substances allegedly 26 released into that watershed by the Chemours facility in Fayetteville, North Carolina. 27 FAC ¶¶ 55-61. Plaintiffs seek studies on three specific PFAS mixtures that are 28 “representative” of the exposures in the Cape Fear River watershed. FAC ¶ 60. All of 9 Case 4:21-cv-01535-PJH Document 38 Filed 05/09/22 Page 10 of 11 1 these allegations make clear that the center of gravity of the case is in the Eastern 2 District of North Carolina. The Eastern District of North Carolina has a strong local 3 interest in having this controversy decided at home. Animal Legal Def. Fund v. U.S. 4 Dep’t of Agric., No. CV 12-4407-SC, 2013 WL 120185, at *4 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 8, 2013) 5 (“[C]ases that impact the environment or groups of animals have more compelling 6 reasons for being heard in the forum having the closest local interest or connection to the 7 activities alleged in the complaint, since those communities will be most affected by those 8 cases’ resolutions.”). 9 In their opposition papers, plaintiffs pivot to argue that the outcome of this case could have “national and California implications” because residents of this district might 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 be exposed to PFAS and thus have an interest in “whether EPA will use its TSCA 12 authorities to require manufacturers to develop information on the risks of PFAS.” Dkt. 13 35 at 27-28. But plaintiffs do not show that residents of this district are exposed to the 14 same 54 PFAS underlying their request for testing in the Cape Fear River watershed. 15 Plaintiffs’ generalized argument stretches so far as to imply that any district court could 16 host this case given the seeming ubiquity of PFAS. The potential national implications of 17 the case to not establish a local interest in the controversy. Plaintiffs’ cause of action is 18 plainly unrelated to their contacts in this forum. Therefore, the minor connection between 19 plaintiffs’ cause of action and this forum as well as the lack of a local interest in the 20 controversy weigh in favor of transferring the case to the Eastern District of North 21 Carolina. 22 e. Weighing the Factors 23 Weighing all the factors, including (a) plaintiffs’ choice of forum, (b) the court most 24 familiar with the administrative law at issue, (c) ease of access to evidence, including the 25 potential for evidence from outside the administrative record, and (d) the contacts related 26 to plaintiffs’ cause of action in this forum, the court must grant defendants’ request to 27 transfer this case. The local interest in having this environmental dispute decided at 28 home, the convenience of the witnesses, and the interests of justice all favor transferring 10 Case 4:21-cv-01535-PJH Document 38 Filed 05/09/22 Page 11 of 11 1 this action to the Eastern District of North Carolina. This forum has little interest in this 2 case, and plaintiffs’ choice to bring it here appears to be the product of blatant forum 3 shopping. Plaintiffs’ alternative request for the case to be transferred to the District of 4 Columbia appears to be a product of the same forum shopping, and it is denied. CONCLUSION 5 6 7 8 9 10 United States District Court Northern District of California 11 For the reasons stated above, the court GRANTS defendants’ motion to transfer venue to the Eastern District of North Carolina. IT IS SO ORDERED. Dated: May 9, 2022 /s/ Phyllis J. Hamilton PHYLLIS J. HAMILTON United States District Judge 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 11

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