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Outside Of The Box: How A Motion To Dismiss Can Go Beyond The Four Corners Of The Complaint

The Third District Court of Appeals (“DCA”) expanded the exceptions to the four corners rule to include a motion to dismiss based on a contractual forum selection clause.  Steiner Transocean Limited v. Efremova, Case No. 3D12-2390 (Fla. 3d DCA, March 13, 2013) (available here).  Defendant Steiner Transocean (“Steiner”) appealed the lower court’s order denying Steiner’s motion to dismiss the second amended complaint, asserting that the complaint had to be dismissed based on the mandatory forum selection clause in the employment contract with the Plaintiff, Milena Efremova.  The Third DCA held that the lower court erred in limiting its determination to the four corners of the complaint.

Efremova was injured while working as a hairstylist on a Carnival cruise in December, 2008 and sued multiple defendants, including Steiner.  She alleged that she was employed by all of the defendants but did not attach an employment contract to her complaint.  In 2012, Steiner moved to dismiss the complaint because the forum selection clause in the employment contract required Efremova to file her case in federal court, not the state court.  Efremova argued that the employment contract was not attached to her complaint, and therefore the court could not look at the contract because that would require going beyond the four corners of her complaint.  The lower court agreed and denied Steiner’s motion.

Generally, a lower court is limited to the complaint and any attachments when considering a motion to dismiss.  This concept is known as the “four corners,” meaning that the court can only consider what is contained within the four corners of the document.  However, there are several exceptions to this rule, including a motion to dismiss challenging subject matter jurisdiction or personal jurisdiction.  The exceptions also include when the court is considering a motion to dismiss for forum non conveniens or improper venue.  The Third DCA concluded that a motion to dismiss based on a forum selection clause in a contract is very similar to a motion to dismiss for improper venue and, therefore, should be treated the same.  “This is especially so because, in Florida, forum selection clauses are presumptively valid[.]” Steiner, Slip Op. P. 4.  The Third DCA reversed the lower court’s order.

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