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:
the trial court finds that an adequate alternate forum exists
which possesses jurisdiction over the whole case, including all of
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
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
the trial judge ensures that plaintiffs can reinstate their
suit in the alternate forum without undue inconvenience or
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.
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