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Warner v. St. John's Northwestern Military Academy Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

January 31, 2019

JAMES WARNER, II, GARNET WARNER, and JAMES WARNER, III, Plaintiffs,
v.
ST. JOHN'S NORTHWESTERN MILITARY ACADEMY INC., ALEX FORSTROM, JOHN FORSTROM, and ABC INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendants.

          ORDER

          J. P. Stadtmueller U.S. District Judge

         1. INTRODUCTION

         This case involves allegations of sexual assault involving two adolescent boys attending a summer camp at St. John's Northwestern Military Academy (“St. John's”) in Delafield, Wisconsin. The plaintiffs are James Warner, III (“Warner”) and his parents, James Warner II and Garnet Warner (collectively, “Warner's parents”). They allege that defendant Alex Forstrom (“Forstrom”) sexually assaulted Warner in the summer of 2012 in a dorm room at St. John's while both were cadets at the school's summer camp. At the time of the alleged assault, Warner was twelve years old and Forstrom was fifteen.

         Warner brings a federal claim against St. John's under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq. (“Title IX”), and state law claims for negligence and false imprisonment. He also brings state law claims against Forstrom for battery, assault, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and against Forstrom's father, John Forstom, for negligence. Warner's parents bring state law claims against St. John's for fraudulent and negligent misrepresentation.

         St. John's moved to dismiss the claims brought against it pursuant to the doctrine of forum non conveniens, arguing that the forum-selection clause in the Enrollment Agreement governing Warner's attendance at the camp mandates that the claims in this case be litigated in the circuit court of Waukesha County, Wisconsin. (Docket #19). Forstom and his father moved to dismiss Warner's claims against them for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. (Docket #24).[1] Both motions are now fully briefed and ripe for adjudication.

         For the reasons explained below, St. John's motion to dismiss for forum non conveniens will be granted, meaning that all claims against St. John's, including the only federal claim in this case, will be dismissed. In light of that dismissal, the Court will grant the Forstroms' motion to dismiss to the extent it implores the Court to decline to exercise its supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining claims against them, all of which arise under Wisconsin law. The entire action, then, will be dismissed without prejudice, leaving the plaintiffs free to re-file the case in Waukesha County if they so desire.[2]

         2. BACKGROUND

         St. John's is an all-male boarding school in Delafield, Wisconsin. Every summer, St. John's operates a five-week summer camp for boys entering seventh through twelfth grades.

         In June 2012, James and Garnet Warner decided to enroll their son James in summer camp at St. John's. Warner's parents entered into an Enrollment Agreement with St. John's (the “Enrollment Agreement”) that contained, among other provisions, a waiver of certain claims that Warner or his parents might accrue stemming from Warner's time at St. John's, a choice-of-law provision selecting Wisconsin law, and a forum-selection clause selecting the circuit court of Waukesha County, Wisconsin for resolution of any litigation arising from the agreement or Warner's enrollment at St. John's. (Docket #21 at 2).[3] The forum-selection clause is the only provision of the agreement that appears in all capital letters, and it reads, in full, as follows:

ANY LITIGATION ARISING OUT OF THIS CONTRACT AND/OR THE ENROLLMENT OF MY (OUR) SON/WARD AT THE ACADEMY, INCLUDING ANY PERSONAL INJURY OR OTHER TORT ACTION, SHALL BE SUBJECT TO THE EXCLUSIVE JURISDICTION AND VENUE IN THE CIRCUIT COURT FOR WAUKESHA COUNTY, WISCONSIN.

Id.

         The Enrollment Agreement is signed by both of Warner's parents, but not Warner himself. Id.

         As to his substantive claims, Warner alleges that on the night of July 30, 2012, Forstrom, who shared a room with Warner despite a school policy that disfavored rooming cadets of different ages together, confronted Warner and asked him if he “know what a rapist was.” (Docket #1 at 8). Warner responded that he didn't and Forstrom “violently threw [Warner] against a dorm room wall and whispered into his ear ‘this is what robbers and rapists do.'” Id. Forstrom then pushed Warner onto a bed in the room and sexually assaulted him. Id. A campus security officer conducting a regularly-scheduled bed check saw the assault in progress and stepped in, demanding an explanation. Forstrom claimed he was teaching Warner “pressure points.” Id.

         On May 10, 2018, some six years later, Warner and his parents filed this lawsuit.

         3. ANALYSIS

         The doctrine of forum non conveniens permits a court, in its discretion, to dismiss an action over which it has proper jurisdiction when there is an adequate alternative forum in which the case may be more conveniently heard. Kamel v. Hill-Rom Co., Inc., 108 F.3d 799, 802 (7th Cir. 1997). A forum non conveniens analysis typically requires the court to evaluate and weigh the private interests of the litigants and the public interests of the forum to determine whether litigating the case in the alternative forum would serve the convenience of parties and witnesses and otherwise promote the interests of justice. See id.; see also Atl. Marine Const. Co. v. U.S. Dist. Court for W. Dist. of Texas, 571 U.S. 49, 62-63 (2013).

         The forum non conveniens analysis changes, however, when the parties' contract contains a valid forum-selection clause, because the clause represents the parties' agreement as to the proper forum and thus its enforcement “protects [the parties'] legitimate expectations and furthers vital interests of the justice system.” Atl. Marine Const. Co., 571 U.S. at 63 (quotation omitted). Importantly, under those circumstances, the plaintiff's choice of forum merits no weight. Instead, “as the party defying the forum-selection clause, the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing that transfer to the forum for which the parties bargained is unwarranted.” Id. Further, the court must not consider arguments about the parties' private interests, and instead must deem those interests to weigh entirely in favor of the preselected forum. Id. at 64. Therefore, the court may only consider arguments about the public interest, which may include factors such as the administrative difficulties flowing from court congestion, local interest in having localized controversies decided at home, and the interest in having a trial in a forum that is at home with the law. Id. at 62 n.6. And because public interest factors will “rarely defeat” a forum non conveniens motion, “the practical result is that forum-selection clauses should control except in unusual cases.” Id. at 64.

         Warner raises three objections to the presumption that the forum-selection clause controls the location of this suit (only one of which arguably touches on public interest factors): (1) the clause cannot bind Warner, a non-signatory to the Enrollment Agreement, so his claims must remain here; (2) the forum-selection clause is ambiguous and should therefore be construed against St. John's; and (3) the Enrollment Agreement is void under Wisconsin law because it violates public policy and therefore its forum-selection clause ...


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