(CN) - California is the wrong venue for a lawsuit claiming that billionaire William Koch imprisoned one of his executives at a Colorado ranch, a federal judge ruled.
In a turnaround sparked by new testimony in a related case, U.S. District Judge Jacqueline Corley approved Koch's request to transfer the lawsuit to the District of Colorado, where most of the alleged imprisonment took place.
Former Oxbow Group executive Kirby Martensen brought
the action against his erstwhile boss last year in the Northern District of California, saying he had been lured to the industrialist's western-themed Bear Ranch, near Aspen, under the pretense of a company getaway.
Once there, however, Koch's henchmen allegedly held Martensen captive for several hours as they confronted him with allegations of fraud. They then allegedly drove him 200 miles to Denver, served him with a lawsuit and termination papers, and put him on a private jet to Oakland against his will, according to the complaint.
Martensen, a California resident, argued that his claims should be heard in his home forum because his imprisonment continued uninterrupted until he was "released" at the airport in Oakland.
Judge Corley had previously refused to dismiss the case for lack of personal jurisdiction, finding
that a "substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to the claim" had indeed taken place in California.
She changed her tune Tuesday, however, after examining new testimony Martensen gave in May at a hearing in Florida, where he is being sued by Oxbow.
In that testimony, as related in Corley's latest order, Martensen conceded that at no point during the drive from Bear Ranch to Denver did he try to flee or alert bystanders to his plight, even though his alleged captors stopped at a 7-11 and allowed Martensen to leave the car and buy food in the store. Once at the airport in Denver, Martensen boarded the flight to Oakland "unescorted" while carrying a cellphone that he could have used to call the police, according to the deposition.
The new testimony severely weakened Martensen's personal jurisdiction claim, according to the ruling.
"Because plaintiff has chosen his home forum, his choice is entitled to deference," Corley wrote. "However, given plaintiff's deposition testimony, defendant's undisputed alleged activities, at the very least, lack a significant connection to the forum. Thus, any deference afforded to plaintiff is 'substantially reduced.' ... Contrary to the allegations in plaintiff's first amended complaint, plaintiff testified that defendant's agents did not escort plaintiff to the plane. Plaintiff also testified that he was not ordered onto the plane in Denver. Nor was plaintiff intimidated into getting onto the plane. As noted above, this new evidence weakens plaintiff's claim of false imprisonment occurring within the forum, at least as compared to the FAC's [first amended complaint's] allegations. Combined with the undisputed fact that the majority of the alleged false imprisonment occurred in Colorado, the court concludes that the new evidence shows that this forum lacks a significant connection to the undisputed facts of this case."
Corley also found that it would be easier for the parties to gather evidence in Colorado.
"As already discussed, Colorado is central to the majority of the events - and the evidence of those events - at issue in this litigation," the judge wrote. "In addition to defendant's ranch and the multiple witnesses located in Colorado, plaintiff's deposition testimony revealed, among other things, new evidence that will be more easily accessible if the case is transferred to Colorado, including evidence regarding the stop at the 7-11 and the time at the Denver airport. With the exception of plaintiff's presence in this forum, maintaining the action in the Northern District will not facilitate access to any sources of proof. Thus, this factor weighs in favor of transfer."
In his testimony, Martensen maintained that, though he was not physically forced to board the plane to California, he feared reprisal if he didn't go along with Koch's plan.
"I keep it all in context," he said in Circuit Court in Palm Beach County. "I think that's important. I'm being accused of a big crime by a big billionaire. I've got two guys sitting in the front that are - they've got to be law enforcement. ... For all intents and purposes, especially after the policeman is parked outside the front door and I'm held in a room for three-and-a-half hours and then I'm told to get in the car and we're going to Denver, not the place I want to go. For all practical purposes, I'm under arrest and I am going to do what my jailer tells me to do. I'm not going to resist. That's not me. I want this - I want to be the most compliant acquiescent nicest guy so that I'm well treated and, hopefully, this all gets straightened out."