The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit granted a writ of mandamus ordering the transfer of a case, finding that the district court’s denial of the motion to transfer “was so patently erroneous” that the extreme measure was appropriate. In re TikTok, Inc., Case No. 23-50575 (5th Cir. Oct. 31, 2023) (Smith, Southwick, Wilson, JJ.)
In the underlying case, Beijing Meishe Network Technology Co. sued TikTok in the US District Court for the Western District of Texas, alleging infringement, trade secret misappropriation and false advertising. All claims stemmed from the theory that a former Meishe employee disclosed copyrighted source code for video and audio editing software to TikTok, which TikTok then implemented into its app. Meishe and TikTok are Chinese companies, and both the alleged disclosure and TikTok’s alleged code implementation occurred in China, assisted by TikTok engineers in California. TikTok has no engineers in Texas but does maintain a business office there, although not within the Western District.
TikTok moved under 28 U.S.C. § 1404 to transfer the case to the Northern District of California. The district court took 11 months to rule on the motion, and in the meantime the case continued through discovery. After the district court denied the motion, TikTok petitioned the Fifth Circuit for a writ of mandamus.
The sole issue on mandamus was the propriety of the district court’s refusal to transfer venue. To succeed on a writ of mandamus, a petitioner must satisfy the reviewing court regarding the following questions:
- Are there other ways to obtain the desired relief?
- Is the reviewing court’s right to issue the writ “clear and indisputable”?
- Is the writ appropriate, given the circumstances?
The Fifth Circuit focused on the second question, its right to issue the writ. In the Fifth Circuit, the 2008 en banc In re Volkswagen case mandates an eight-factor test that a district court must consider in deciding a § 1404 transfer motion. No one factor is dispositive, and the Fifth Circuit has cautioned against tallying the yes/no results or denying transfer just because most factors are neutral. Unsurprisingly, in the 15 years since Volkswagen, district courts applying these factors have reached inconsistent results. Even the Fifth Circuit has reached “conflicting outcomes” when reviewing these cases. The Fifth Circuit therefore took the opportunity to address each factor.
The Fifth Circuit found that two factors weighed in favor of transfer:
- The relative ease of access to sources of proof
- The cost of attendance of willing witnesses
Regarding ease of access to proof, the Fifth Circuit clarified that factfinders analyze “relative ease of access, not absolute ease of access” to documents and other physical evidence. The district court had determined that this factor was neutral, given that most documentation was electronic. The Fifth Circuit disagreed, explaining that while the source code was electronically stored, it was protected by a high level of security clearance. Only certain TikTok employees based in California and China were able to access the code. Using the relative metric, [...]