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McKinney v. Pinter

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama

February 26, 2019

THOMAS PINTER, et al., Defendants.


          SCHILLER, J.

         Plaintiff Stephen McKinney, Defendant Thomas Pinter, and Defendant Stephen Worthington operated gravestone businesses together. But now the arrangement is buried in argument. McKinney, individually and derivatively on behalf of Primus Enterprise, LLC, brings sixteen claims against Pinter, Worthington, and their affiliated companies, Pinter Memorials, Inc., and VetsUSA II, Inc.[1] McKinney's claims include misappropriation of trade secrets under the Defend Trade Secrets Act and the Pennsylvania Uniform Trade Secrets Act, as well as numerous state law tort and contract claims.

         Defendants move to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, improper venue, and failure to state a claim. Alternatively, Defendants seek to transfer pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1404 or 1406. Because the parties established business operations at an Alabama quarry, where most of the alleged wrongful acts occurred, and for the reasons that follow, the Court concludes that fairness and convenience favor transfer. Therefore, the Court need not decide whether it lacks personal jurisdiction over Worthington and VetsUSA, or whether McKinney fails to state claims upon which relief can be granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         McKinney, Pinter, and Worthington are business partners from Pennsylvania, Florida, and Virginia, respectively, who allegedly agreed to manufacture, engrave, and distribute gravestones. The gravestone businesses involved roughly three arrangements: First, McKinney and Pinter manufactured gravestones through a jointly owned limited liability company, Primus. Second, Pinter Memorials, a company associated with Pinter, inscribed the gravestones. Third, VetsUSA, a company associated with Worthington, distributed the gravestones to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, National Cemetery Association (“Veterans Affairs”).

         In 2013, McKinney purchased Wenzco Supplies, LLC. (McKinney Decl. ¶¶ 5, 7.) Pinter was a customer of Wenzco when McKinney purchased it. (Id. ¶ 7.) Business relationships with McKinney and Worthington began as early as 2014 and “grew through [Pinter], who acted as a liaison between” McKinney, Worthington, and Worthington's companies. (Id. 11-13.)

         The present business arrangement began in June 2017, when Stanton Grubb, an employee of VetsUSA, LLC, inquired about McKinney's ability to supply materials for anticipated contracts with the federal government. (Am. Compl. ¶ 24.) Grubb's inquiry prompted follow-up meetings. Grubb traveled to Pennsylvania in July 2017 to meet with McKinney and Pinter, and to inspect facilities owned by Wenzco. (Id. ¶¶ 25-26; McKinney Decl. ¶¶ 5, 15.) Two months later, McKinney and Pinter visited a facility in Bessemer, Alabama, that Worthington hoped to use in connection with a federal gravestone contract. (Am. Compl. ¶ 27.)

         After the meetings, the parties decided to pursue a set-aside contract with Veterans Affairs (the “VA Contract”). (Id. ¶¶ 28-29.) Worthington requested that Pinter solicit help from McKinney to assemble a bid. (Id. ¶ 28.) Pinter did so in November 2017, when he met with McKinney in Pennsylvania. (Id. ¶ 32.) McKinney agreed to help Worthington prepare a bid for the five-year VA Contract valued at $36, 391, 870. (Id. ¶ 28.) To submit the bid and perform the contract, if awarded, Worthington established VetsUSA in December 2017. (Id. ¶ 30.)

         McKinney helped prepare the bid by evaluating competition; evaluating and soliciting equipment manufacturers and suppliers for raw materials; creating a logistics strategy; and reviewing and analyzing all costs, income, and other numbers for the contract execution. (Id. ¶ 35.) He also developed a specialized fabrication process, because the parties agreed to subcontract gravestone production to McKinney or an entity in which he had an ownership interest. (Id. ¶ 37.) McKinney worked for four hours every day, primarily from Pennsylvania, until March 2018, when Veterans Affairs awarded the VA Contract to VetsUSA. (Id. ¶ 39; McKinney Decl. ¶ 29.) After VetsUSA secured the VA contract in late March or early April 2018, Worthington recognized that “but for McKinney's involvement . . . VetsUSA would not have obtained it.” (Am. Compl. ¶ 40.)

         Once VetsUSA secured the VA Contract, McKinney and Pinter started developing plans as the prospective suppliers. (Id. ¶ 36.) McKinney and Pinter consulted a professional in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, about forming Primus to fabricate blank gravestones. (Id. ¶¶ 42-43.) At the consultant's direction, McKinney and Pinter formed Primus, a Delaware limited liability company. (McKinney Decl. ¶ 38.) All formation paperwork was prepared in Pennsylvania; some of the papers were executed in Pennsylvania. (Id. ¶¶ 39-40.)

         McKinney and Pinter formed an oral operating agreement to govern Primus. (Am. Compl. ¶ 46.) Among other things, it provided that Primus begin work at the plant in Bessemer, Alabama, operated by JB Processing, LLC. (Id. ¶ 47(b); McKinney Decl. ¶ 50.) However, McKinney and Pinter expected to move operations to Pennsylvania around October 2018 because the Alabama marble quarry was not suitable for the VA Contract's needs. (Am. Compl. ¶ 47(b); McKinney Decl. ¶¶ 52-53.)

         When operations commenced in April 2018, McKinney lived in a hotel room near the Alabama plant. (McKinney Decl. ¶¶ 57-58.) By June 2018, McKinney and Pinter signed year-long leases for apartments in Alabama. (Id. ¶ 58; Pinter Decl. ¶ 4, Jan. 10, 2019.) Although Worthington did not move to Alabama, he visited the plant on two occasions. (Pinter Decl. ¶ 8, Jan. 10, 2019.)

         McKinney maintained his permanent address in Pennsylvania, returned to Pennsylvania weekly or biweekly, and, at least once, delivered supplies to Pinter from Pennsylvania. (McKinney Decl. ¶¶ 59-60, 62.) Moreover, Wenzco shipped materials from Pennsylvania to Alabama for the VA Contract, and two Wenzco employees traveled from Pennsylvania to Alabama to provide Primus with temporary labor for the VA Contract. (Id. ¶¶ 63, 83.)

         By the end of summer, relationships soured. When McKinney returned from traveling internationally on Primus business, he received emails that effectively removed him from business operations. Specifically, Pinter emailed McKinney on August 12, 2018, stating an intent to dissolve their business relationships; the August 12 email copied an employee from JB Processing. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 70-71.) Ten minutes later, the JB Processing employee emailed McKinney, banning him from the Alabama plant. (McKinney Decl. ¶ 88.) Almost two weeks later, Pinter copied McKinney on an email to Worthington, stating that Pinter had formed a new business to manufacture gravestones and offering to provide gravestones to VetsUSA. (Id. ¶ 89.)

         McKinney alleges that, after Pinter froze him out, Pinter mismanaged Primus by operating at less than capacity, diverting resources, and depleting assets. (Am. Compl. ¶ 77.) As a result, McKinney claims that Defendants stole, among other things, “trade secrets . . ., know-how, consumer lists, and contracts.” (Id. ¶ 78.)


         Improper venue may be asserted pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(3). “[W]hen deciding a Rule 12(b)(3) motion to dismiss for improper venue, a court must accept as true the allegations in the complaint, although the parties may submit affidavits to support their positions.” Leone v. Cataldo, 574 F.Supp.2d 471, 483 (E.D. Pa. 2008). It is the defendant's burden, when moving to dismiss based on improper venue, to establish that venue is improper. Myers v. Am. Dental Ass'n, 695 F.2d 716, 724 (3d Cir. 1982); see also Shutte v. ...

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