A court's discretionary power to decline to exercise its jurisdiction where another court may more conveniently hear a case.
Forum non conveniens is a discretionary power that allows courts to dismiss a case where another court, or forum, is much better suited to hear the case. This dismissal does not prevent a plaintiff from re-filing his or her case in the more appropriate forum. See Res Judicata. This doctrine may be invoked by either the defendant, or by the court. See sua sponte.
Even if a plaintiff brings a case in an inconvenient forum, a court will not grant a forum non conveniens dismissal if there is no other forum that could hear the case, or if the other forum would not award the plaintiff any money even if he or she won. Similarly, courts will not grant a forum non conveniens dismissal where the alternative forum's judicial system is grossly inadequate. For example, an American court would not grant a forum non conveniens dismissal where the alternative forum was Cuba.
When a defendant motions for a forum non conveniens transfer, courts typically use a 2-part test. The first part is a balancing test of both private and public factors, and the second looks at what adequate alternative courts are available.
- Balancing Test
- Private Factors
- ease of access to evidence
- interest of the two parties in their connections with the respective forums
- the plaintiff's chosen court would be burdensome to the defendant
- If a court finds this factor to be true, then that is often sufficient to dismiss the case and accept a forum non conveniens claim
- ease of obtaining witnesses
- enforceability of judgment
- Public Factors
- whether the trial would involve multiple sets of laws, thus potentially confusing a jury
- having juries who may have a connection to the case
- local interest in having local interests heard at home
- having the trial in a place where state laws govern
- Private Factors
- Adequate Alternative Inquiry Test
- The defendant must offer an alternate court that is able to hear the case
- The alternate court must have the ability to provide a remedy to the plaintiff
Sua Sponte Action
Further, a court will typically only invoke forum non conveniens sua sponte if it meets a 2-step test:
- the court is a seriously inappropriate forum
- there is a substantially more appropriate court that is available for the plaintiff's claim
Stipulations, Standards, and the Supreme Court
Sometimes, courts attach conditions to forum non conveniens dismissals. For example, the court might require the defendant to waive defenses that would prevent the plaintiff from re-filing the suit in the alternative forum. Or the court might dismiss the case in favor of a foreign court, but only on the condition that the defendant allow American-style discovery.
On appeal, forum non conveniens decisions are evaluated using an abuse of discretion standard.
The Supreme Court considered forum non conveniens in Piper Aircraft Co. v. Reyno, 454 U.S. 235 (1981). In that case, the Court held that so long as there was a remedy available in the alternate forum, it did not matter if the remedy was clearly insufficient. However, lower courts do not strictly follow this rule. Instead, they usually consider the adequacy of the alternative forum's remedy as another factor to be balanced when deciding whether or not to grant a forum non conveniens dismissal.
The Supreme Court has heard two cases on the issue of forum non conveniens in recent years. The first was Sinochem International Co. Ltd. v. Malaysia International Shipping Corp. (2007), in which it held that a federal court may hear and pass a ruling on a forum non conveniens claim even if that court does not necessarily have subject-matter jurisdiction or personal jurisdiction over the case in front of the court. The Court held that while courts typically need to consider personal jurisdiction and subject-matter jurisdiction before hearing a case on the merits, this procedure does not necessarily apply when considering nonmerits issues. The second case was Atlantic Marine Construction Co. v. U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas (2013). Here, the Court clarified that when granting a forum non conveniens claim, the issuing court should use 28 U.S.C. 1404(a), which states, "For the convenience of parties and 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 or to any district or division to which all parties have consented."