Steven Prophet v. International Lifestyles, Inc., No. 11-12046 (11th Cir. 2011), is a Court of Appeals articulation of an important issue in international litigation. The issue arises in many contexts where district courts are given discretion. In this case the underlying issue relates to the application of the doctrine of forum non conveniens.
District Courts are given fairly wide discretion in applying the doctrine of forum non conveniens. However, over time, the need and utility of having a predictable body of jurisprudence so that litigants can make more informed choices in deciding where to sue and whether to make motions to dismiss has led appellate courts to constrain that discretion by applying rules, presumptions, categories of relevant considerations, etc. that lower courts are to apply in exercising their discretion.
In Prophet, the Eleventh Circuit went farther than many cases, though the Court of Appeals was quoting and following two recent Eleventh Circuit rulings. The Court of Appeals first said that it “will reverse a district court’s dismissal based on forum non conveniens only if constitutes a clear abuse of discretion”. However, the Court of Appeals then says that “by definition” the lower court “abuses its discretion when it makes an error of law”. Then, the Court of Appeals defined an error of law as follows:
We have explained that dismissal of a complaint based on forum non conveniens is appropriate where:
1. the trial court finds that an adequate alternate forum exists which possesses jurisdiction over the whole case, including all of the parties;
2. the trial court finds that all relevant factors of private interest favor the alternate forum, weighing in the balance a strong presumption against disturbing plaintiffs’ initial forum choice;
3. if the balance of private interests is at or near equipoise, the court further finds that factors of public interest tip the balance in favor of trial in the alternate forum; and
4. the trial judge ensures that plaintiffs can reinstate their suit in the alternate forum without undue inconvenience or prejudice.
The Eleventh Circuit then reversed the lower court’s decision for saying that it was giving “great weight” to the plaintiffs choice of forum (the plaintiffs were U.S. citizens, yet the District Court dismissed the case on forum non conveniens in any event) but not, in the Court of Appeals mind, actually applying the heavy presumption in favor of permitting a U.S. citizen access to a U.S. court.