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Harrington v. Energy West, Inc.

Supreme Court of Montana

June 13, 2017

JONATHAN HARRINGTON, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
ENERGY WEST, INC., and DOES 1-4, Defendants and Appellees.

          Submitted on Briefs: April 26, 2017

         APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Eighth Judicial District, In and For the County of Cascade, Cause No. DDV 13-159(c) Honorable John A. Kutzman, Presiding Judge.

          For Appellant: John E. Seidlitz, Jr., Seidlitz Law Office, Great Falls, Montana

          For Appellees: Oliver H. Goe, Christy S. McCann, Browning, Kaleczyc, Berry & Hoven, P.C., Helena, Montana

          OPINION

          Beth Baker Justice.

         ¶1 Jonathan Harrington asserted several employment-related claims against Energy West Inc. Following our remand in Harrington v. Energy West, Inc., 2015 MT 233, 380 Mont. 298, 356 P.3d 441 (hereafter Harrington I), the District Court denied Harrington's motion to amend his complaint and granted Energy West's motion to dismiss based on the doctrine of forum non conveniens. Harrington contends that the District Court abused its discretion in denying him leave to amend his complaint and that it incorrectly dismissed the case under forum non conveniens.

         ¶2 We affirm.

         PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         ¶3 Energy West is a Montana corporation and a corporate subsidiary of Gas Natural, Inc.-an Ohio corporation with corporate offices in Ohio and Montana. As we noted in Harrington I, it is unclear whether Energy West or Gas Natural hired Harrington as a corporate controller in February 2011. Nevertheless, the record establishes that Harrington entered into his employment agreement in Ohio; that the agreement was made between Harrington and Gas Natural employees; that Harrington resided and worked primarily in Ohio; that he provided services to Energy West from Gas Natural's Ohio office; and that Energy West issued Harrington's paychecks and paid Harrington's payroll taxes, withholdings, and insurance premiums to the State of Ohio.

         ¶4 In October 2012, Harrington's employment was terminated. Harrington filed suit against Energy West in Montana's Eighth Judicial District Court, alleging wrongful discharge under the Montana Wrongful Discharge from Employment Act, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and defamation. Energy West moved under M. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The District Court granted the motion after hearing oral argument. The court determined that Ohio law governed and that it therefore lacked subject-matter jurisdiction, or, alternatively, that Ohio was the appropriate forum to exercise jurisdiction. Harrington appealed.

         ¶5 In Harrington I, we concluded that the District Court did not abuse its discretion by declining to hold an evidentiary hearing before granting Energy West's motion to dismiss. Harrington I, ¶ 11. In so doing, we noted that the "parties vigorously dispute whether Harrington's employer was Energy West or Gas Natural." Harrington I, ¶ 11. That dispute, we emphasized, was "not material to determinations bearing on the resolution of Energy West's motion" to dismiss. Harrington I, ¶ 11. We concluded that the material facts relevant to Energy West's motion "concern[ed] the place where Harrington entered into his employment agreement and performed his employment." Harrington I, ¶ 11. We noted that the parties did not dispute those material facts. Harrington I, ¶ 11.

         ¶6 Analyzing the issue of subject-matter jurisdiction, we first considered whether Montana or Ohio law governed Harrington's employment contract. Harrington I, ¶¶ 17-22. We confirmed that the record undisputedly established that "Harrington performed the majority of his duties in his Ohio office" and "that Harrington's employment agreement was made in Ohio between Harrington and Gas Natural employees." Harrington I, ¶ 21. We thus concluded pursuant to § 28-3-102, MCA, that the District Court "correctly determined that Ohio law governs Harrington's contract claims" and that Harrington could not rely on Montana law for his wrongful termination claims. Harrington I, ¶¶ 21-22.

         ¶7 Notwithstanding application of Montana law, we concluded that Montana courts had subject-matter jurisdiction over Harrington's claim. Harrington I, ¶ 25. We then examined the District Court's alternative basis for dismissal, that Ohio was the appropriate forum for exercise of subject-matter jurisdiction. Harrington I, ¶¶ 26-29. This alternative basis, we deduced, "appear[ed] to refer to the doctrine of forum non conveniens." Harrington I, ¶ 26. We held:

Based on the record on appeal, we cannot determine whether an alternative forum is available for Harrington's claims. Ohio seems the natural location for this litigation, but for an Ohio court to hear this case it would have to have personal jurisdiction over Energy West. The parties have not argued whether there are obstacles to jurisdiction in Ohio, but Energy West is a Montana corporation with its principal place of business in Montana, and Energy West has not stated whether it would consent to personal jurisdiction in Ohio. We will not resolve this question without the benefit of argument.
Additionally, Harrington also has claims of negligent infliction of emotional distress and slander that may or may not rely on Montana law. The District Court would need to consider these claims as well in evaluating forum non conveniens. We thus conclude that we cannot resolve the issue of dismissal ...

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