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Norrid v. D.A.R.P., Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

June 13, 2018

Shane Norrid, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
D.A.R.P., Inc., Raymond Jones, and Hendren Plastics, Inc., Defendants.

          ORDER

          Honorable Ronald A. White United States District Judge Eastern District of Oklahoma

         Before the court is defendant Hendren Plastics, Inc.'s motion to transfer venue (Docket No. 93). Because the court finds the first-to-file rule applicable and further finds transfer to be in the interest of justice under 28 U.S.C § 1404(a), the motion to transfer venue is granted, and the case will be transferred to the Western District of Arkansas.

         I. Background

         On October 23, 2017, Mark Fochtman and Shane O'Neal filed a putative class action in Arkansas State Court. The case was removed to the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas and ordered amended. The amended class action alleges that Defendants D.A.R.P. Inc. (“DARP”) and Hendren Plastics, Inc. (“Hendren”) contracted together to use individuals on probation as involuntary laborers. The class action alleges that this labor violated the Arkansas Minimum Wage Act, Arkansas Constitution, Arkansas Human Trafficking Act, and the Arkansas Civil Rights Action § 16-123-105. Plaintiffs seek to represent all individuals who worked for DARP in Arkansas from October 23, 2014 to the present and wishes to recover unpaid back wages, liquidated damages, punitive damages, and injunctive relief.

         On November 1, 2017, Plaintiffs Shane Norrid, et. al. filed a putative class action in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma. The instant class action alleges that DARP, Hendren, and Raymond Jones, President of DARP, contracted to force individuals on probation into involuntary servitude in violation of Arkansas Minimum Wage Act, Arkansas unjust enrichment laws, Oklahoma Trafficking for Labor Act, Oklahoma fraud laws, Oklahoma wage laws, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Plaintiffs seek to represent all persons who have worked for Hendren and DARP in Arkansas or Oklahoma since November 1, 2007 and recover unpaid wages, liquidated damages, punitive damages, injunctive relief, disgorgement, attorney's fees, and costs.

         II. First-to-file Rule

         The court finds that the first-to-file rule provides an adequate basis for transfer. Federal courts must be careful to not interfere in one another's affairs so as “to avoid the waste of duplication, to avoid rulings which may trench upon the authority of sister courts, and to avoid piecemeal resolution of issues that call for a uniform result." Buzas Baseball, Inc. v. Board of Regents, 1999 U.S. App. LEXIS 21630, at *6-7, (10th Cir. Sept. 2, 1999) (quoting Sutter Corp. v. P&P Indus., Inc., 125 F.3d 914, 917 (5th Cir. 1997)). To aid in this goal, the first-to-file rule allows a district court to decline jurisdiction when a complaint raising the same issues against the same parties has been previously filed in another district court. Buzas Baseball, Inc., 1999 U.S. App. LEXIS 21630, at *7. While the first-to-file rule is generally enforced by the first court, the second court has the discretion to transfer, stay, or dismiss the second case. Wallace B. Roderick Revocable Living Trust v. XTO Energy, Inc., 679 F.Supp.2d 1287, 1297 (D. Kan. 2010) (quoting Cedars-Sinai Med. Ctr. v Shalala, 125 F.3d 765, 769 (9th Cir. 1997)). “The first-to-file rule applies when three conditions are met: (1) chronology of the actions, (2) similarity of the parties, and (3) similarity of the issues.” Shannon's Rainbow, LLC v. Supernova Media, Inc., 683 F.Supp.2d 1261, 1278 (D. Utah 2010) (citing Alltrade, Inc. v. Uniweld Prods., Inc., 946 F.2d 622, 625 (9th Cir. 1991)).

         A. Chronology of the Actions

         In both in rem and in personam jurisdiction, jurisdiction relates back to the filing of the complaint. Hospah Coal Co. v. Chaco Energy Co., 673 F.2d 1161, 1163 (10th Cir. 1982) (citing Product Engineering and Manufacturing, Inc. v. Barnes, 424 F.2d 42 (10th Cir. 1970)). "When a state action is removed to federal court, for first-to-file purposes, the state court filing date is the date used." Medspring Group, Inc. v. Atl. Healthcare Group, Inc., 2006 WL 581018, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13443, at *9 (D. Utah March 6, 2006) (quoting Affinity Memory & Micro, Inc. v. K & Q Enterprises, Inc., 20 F.Supp.2d 948, 954 n.10 (E.D. Virginia 1998)).

         The court finds that the case in the Western District of Arkansas is the first-filed action, while the instant case is the second-filed action. The Fochtman case was indisputably filed before the Norrid case. Plaintiff argues that Norrid should be considered the first case, as Norrid is further along in its proceedings than Fochtman. Even if true, procedural maturity is irrelevant for purposes of evaluating the first-to-file rule. As stated in Hospah, jurisdiction relates back to the filing, not subsequent stages of the case. Thus, the Fochtman case in the Western District of Arkansas qualifies as the first-filed case.

         B. Similarity of the Parties

         Courts require that parties be similar or substantially overlap one another. Shannon's Rainbow, LLC, 683 F.Supp.2d at 1279. Parties need not be identical. Id. at 1278-79. “Courts have held that proposed classes in class action lawsuits are substantially similar where both classes seek to represent at least some of the same individuals." See Letbetter v. Local 514, Transp. Workers Union of Am., 2014 WL 4403521, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 123949, at *18 (N.D. Okla. September 5, 2014) (quoting Wallerstein v. Dole Fresh Vegetables, Inc., 967 F.Supp.2d 1289, 1296 (N.D. Cal. 2013)).

         Defendants are substantially similar. The Fochtman case currently lists DARP and Hendren as defendants. In the instant case, the defendants are Raymond Jones (President of DARP), as well as DARP and Hendren. The court concludes that Raymond Jones may be considered substantially similar to DARP. Both are represented by the same counsel, and there is no reason to believe that Mr. Jones, as president of DARP, has any conflicting interests with DARP. See Cherokee Nation v. Nash, 724 F.Supp.2d 1159, 1169 (N.D. Okla. 2010). Mr. Jones's position in the lawsuit may therefore be considered identical to the position of DARP. See id. As such, there is substantial overlap between defendants in the two cases.

         Plaintiffs are substantially similar. Both this court and the Northern District of Oklahoma have compared the putative classes, not the named plaintiffs, for the purposes of the first-to-file rule when the class has not yet been certified. See Chieftain Royalty Co. v. XTO Energy, Inc., CIV-11-29-FHS, 2011 WL 1533073, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43704, at *2 (E.D. Okla. Apr. 22, 2011); See Letbetter, 2014 WL 4403521, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 123949, at *15-16. The proposed Norrid class seeks to represent DARP participants who worked in either Oklahoma or Arkansas from November 2007 to the present. The proposed Fochtman class seeks to represent DARP participants who worked in Arkansas from October 2014 to the present. Therefore, the Fochtman putative class is a ...


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