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Pueblo of Jemez v. United States

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

May 1, 2018

PUEBLO OF JEMEZ, a federally recognized Indian tribe, Plaintiff,
v.
THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant and NEW MEXICO GAS COMPANY, Defendant-in-Intervention.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ROBERT C. BRACK, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on the Pueblo of Jemez's Motion and Memorandum in Support of Motion for Intra-Division Transfer of Trial to Albuquerque, New Mexico (Doc. 189), filed on March 9, 2018, and the United States' Opposed Motion for Leave to File Surreply to Plaintiffs Motion for Intra-Di strict Transfer of Trial to Albuquerque, New Mexico (Doc. 200), filed on April 16, 2018. Having considered the submissions of counsel[1] and relevant law, the Court will DENY the Pueblo of Jemez's Motion for Transfer and DENY AS MOOT the United States' Motion for Leave to File Surreply.

         I. Background

         In 2012, the Pueblo of Jemez (Plaintiff) filed suit against the United States (Defendant) in federal court "under the federal common law and the Quiet Title Act (QTA), 28 U.S.C. § 2409a, et seq., seeking to quiet its allegedly unextinguished and continuing aboriginal title to the lands of what is now the Valles Caldera National Preserve." Pueblo of Jemez v. United States, 790 F.3d 1143, 1146 (10th Cir. 2015), Plaintiff now "moves for an intra-division transfer of the trial location in this matter" from Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Albuquerque, New Mexico. (See Doc. 189 at 1.) The parties estimate the trial will require two to three weeks (Doc. 91 at 26), and the Court has scheduled a bench trial to take place October 29 through November 16, 2018 (Doc. 100).

         II. Standard

         "New Mexico constitutes one judicial district." 28 U.S.C. §111. When deciding a motion for an intra-district transfer, courts consider the factors relevant to a transfer of venue under 27 USC. § 1404(a). SeeEEOCv. BokFin. Corp., No. Civ. 11-1132 RB/LAM, 2014 WL 11829318, at *1 (D.N.M. Jan. 3, 2014) (citing Four Corners Nephrology Assocs., P.C v. Mercy Med Ctr. of Durango, 464 F.Supp.2d 1095, 1098 (D. Colo. 2006)). The factors "include: (1) the plaintiffs choice of forum; (2) the convenience of the witnesses, (3) the accessibility of witnesses and other sources of proof; (4) the possibility of obtaining a fair trial; and (5) all other considerations of a practical nature that make a trial easy, expeditious and economical." Four Corners Nephrology Assocs., P.C, 464 F.Supp.2d at 1098 (citing Chrysler Credit Corp. v. Country Chrysler, Inc., 928 F.2d 1509, 1516 (10th Cir. 1991) (subsequent citations omitted)); see also Bok Fin. Corp., 2014 WL 11829318, at *1. "The party seeking transfer has the burden of proving that the existing forum is inconvenient." Id. (citing Scheldt v. Klein, 956 F.2d 963, 965 (10th Cir. 1992) (subsequent citation omitted)).

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiff argues that transferring this trial to Albuquerque will "preserve limited resources, " improve convenience and accessibility for fact witnesses, "facilitate the efficient presentation of testimony from expert witnesses[, ] .. . provide efficiency in travel for the Parties' counsel[, ] and be in the interest of justice given the location of the land at issue in this case." (Doc. 189 at 1.) Defendant opposes the motion if it means that the case would be transferred to a different judge or the trial would be delayed. (See Doc. 194.)

         Plaintiff's Choice of Forum

         Plaintiff contends that it "originally filed this action to be heard in Albuquerque (Doc. 189 at 4.) The mere filing of an action in a certain courthouse in this District, however, does not ensure that the action will remain with a judge in that courthouse. The District of New Mexico employs "a random case-distribution system[, ]" which means that cases filed in this District may be assigned to a United States District Judge in any one of our courthouses. See, e.g., United States v. Rodella, No. CR 14-2783 JB, 2014 WL 4792598, at * 11 (D.N.M. Sept. 15, 2014). Local Rule 73.1 provides for the allocation of civil case assignments to United States Magistrate Judges, in addition to United States District Judges. See D.N.M. LR-Civ. 73.1(a). This case was, in fact, originally assigned to an Albuquerque-based magistrate judge to conduct dispositive proceedings. (See Doc. 3.) The parties did not consent to the magistrate judge, and the case was then reassigned to me, a Las Cruces-based district judge. (See Doc. 12.) Because of the District's random case-distribution system, however, this action could have been assigned to me at the outset. See BokFin. Corp., 2014 WL 11829318, at * 1.

         Convenience of the Witnesses and Accessibility of Witnesses and Other Sources of Proof

         Plaintiff asserts that most, if not all, of the fact witnesses, expert witnesses, parties, and attorneys live in or near either Albuquerque (220 miles north of Las Cruces) or the Jemez Pueblo (270 miles north of Las Cruces). (See Docs. 189 at 4-6; 189-1.) Plaintiff also argues that there are unique circumstances in this case, as many of the fact witnesses are tribal members with "critical religious societal positions, " are elderly, and/or are in feeble health, and travel would pose an increased burden on both individuals and the Pueblo itself in terms of time and money. (See Docs. 189 at 4-6; 198 at 4-5, 7-9.)

         Plaintiff acknowledges that of the six fact witnesses it identifies as "essential, " five are able to travel to Las Cruces for the trial ("but with substantial burden of time and expense"), and one has not disclosed whether travel is possible. (See Doc. 189-1.) Both parties have also indicated that they are open to flexible and creative solutions, including live testimony via videoconference. (See Docs. 194 at 6; 198 at 8.)

         Further, Plaintiff asserts that it "intends to request that the Court take some evidence in the Valles Caldera National Preserve itself, which is the site of the aboriginal title claim at issue in this case." (Doc. 189 at 6.) Plaintiff does not specify what that evidence will include, nor does Plaintiff ...


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