In some cases, a person who brings a civil law suit can decide whether to assert claims under state law, federal law, or both. The decision comes with consequences because a defendant may prefer to defend the suit or seek its dismissal in state court under some circumstances, and federal court in others. In a recent case, the plaintiff filed his complaint in the Eleventh Judicial District of the County of San Juan, in a New Mexico state court. His claims were based on a traffic stop that occurred in a manner that he alleged was actionable under the New Mexico Tort Claims Act.
The defendants, a group that includes government entities, removed the plaintiff’s complaint to federal district court, asserting that there was federal question jurisdiction, and filed a motion seeking to have the complaint dismissed on the basis of purported failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted. Instead of filing a response to the motion addressing the defendants’ arguments in support of dismissal, the plaintiff filed a motion to remand the case to state court, where he had filed his complaint and preferred to proceed.
The plaintiff made several contentions in support of remanding the case, including that the defendants improperly removed the case from state court on the basis of federal question jurisdiction because he had not pleaded a federal cause of action in his complaint and that the due process rights referenced in his complaint are rights conferred under New Mexico state law. The court agreed with the plaintiff that the manner in which he had pleaded his complaint did not transform a state law tort claim into a federal constitutional claim. The court also rejected the defendants’ argument that the plaintiff’s claims should be treated as federal law claims because he had sought punitive damages that are not available under the New Mexico Tort Claims Act. The court further reasoned that, even were the court to construe the complaint as raising an embedded federal constitutional law claim, the plaintiff’s right to relief depended on the construction and application of New Mexico state law. Ultimately, the court concluded it was appropriate to send the case back to state court, where the plaintiff had filed his complaint and wished to proceed, and accordingly remanded to the Eleventh Judicial District of the County of San Juan.