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Alonso v. Kalischatarra Iron & Metal NM, LLC

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

October 10, 2019

JUAN ANTONIO ALONSO, Plaintiff,
v.
KALISCHATARRA[1] IRON & METAL NM, LLC and LIBERTY IRON & METAL, INC., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO REMAND

          STEPHAN M. VIDMAR UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Remand [Doc. 12], filed on August 8, 2019. Defendant Liberty Iron & Metal, Inc. (“Liberty”) responded on August 22, 2019. [Doc. 15]. Plaintiff replied on September 5, 2019. [Doc. 16]. Defendant Kalischatarra Iron & Metal NM, LLC (“Kalischatarra”) never responded, and no response from it is needed. The parties consented to have the undersigned conduct dispositive proceedings in this matter. [Doc. 10]. The Court has considered the briefing, the relevant portions of the record, and the relevant law. Being otherwise fully advised in the premises, the Court finds that the Motion is well-taken and shall be GRANTED.

         BACKGROUND

         On May 8, 2019, Plaintiff, a 54-year-old Mexican-American man, sued two alleged employers (Liberty and Kalischatarra) for unlawfully firing him. [Doc. 1-1] at 12-14. He brings three causes of action against Defendants. First, he alleges in Count I of his Complaint that Defendants (a) discriminated against him based on his race, national origin, and age, and (b) retaliated against him. Id. at 14. Count I does not indicate whether Plaintiff is suing under federal or state employment laws. See Id. In Count II, he brings a claim for breach of an implied contract of employment. Id. at 14-15. In Count III, he brings a claim for prima facie tort. Id. at 15.

         Liberty moved to dismiss the Complaint in state court on June 12, 2019, arguing, inter alia, that Plaintiff had failed to exhaust administrative remedies related to his employment-discrimination claims. [Doc. 3-1] at 26-29. Plaintiff responded in state court on June 27, 2019, id. at 39, arguing that he had exhausted all administrative remedies. He attached a copy of his Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) charge of discrimination to his Response. Id. at 42, 51. His EEOC charge alleged that he “was discriminated against . . . in violation of [two federal laws:] the Age Discrimination in Employment Act [ADEA] . . . and . . . Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Id. at 51. He did not mention any state laws in his EEOC charge. Before filing a reply, Liberty removed the case to federal court on July 9, 2019, on the basis of federal-question jurisdiction. [Doc. 1] at 2. Liberty argues that the EEOC charge “now makes clear Plaintiff's complaint is for alleged violations of federal discrimination statutes.” Id. Plaintiff filed the instant Motion to Remand on August 8, 2019. [Doc. 12].

         ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff argues that no federal-question jurisdiction exists because he never pleaded any federal cause of action. Id. at 1-2. He claims, “This is, and always has been, an employment suit under Chapter 21 of the Texas Labor Code and other common[-]law causes of action.”[2] Id. at 3.

         Plaintiff also argues that Defendant failed to timely remove the case because it filed the notice of removal more than 30 days after Plaintiff served the Complaint. Id.

         Liberty argues that federal-question jurisdiction[3] exists because Plaintiff's EEOC charge confirms that he sued Defendants under two federal employment laws (the ADEA and Title VII), and because he references “neither federal [n]or state law in his Complaint.” [Doc. 15] at 6-7.

         Liberty further argues that it timely removed the case because it was unaware that Plaintiff was pursuing a federal claim until Plaintiff filed a copy of the EEOC charge as an exhibit to his Response to the Motion to Dismiss. Id. at 7-8. Because the Court agrees with Plaintiff that federal-question jurisdiction does not exist, it need not decide whether Liberty timely removed the case.

         A. The Court will remand the case because the EEOC charge does not provide a basis for removal and Plaintiff's Complaint presents no federal question on its face.

         Federal district courts have federal-question jurisdiction over all actions arising under federal law. 28 U.S.C. § 1331 (2018). If an action filed in state court arises under federal law, the defendant may remove the case to federal court. Id. § 1441(a). In removed cases, the defendant bears the burden to establish jurisdiction. United States ex rel. Hafter D.O. v. Spectrum Emergency Care, Inc., 190 F.3d 1156, 1160 (10th Cir. 1999). Because federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, “[r]emoval statutes are to be strictly construed, and all doubts are to be resolved against removal.” Fajen v. Found. Reserve Ins. Co., 683 F.2d 331, 333 (10th Cir. 1982) (citation omitted).

         Federal-question jurisdiction exists “under two circumstances: ‘a well-pleaded complaint establishes either that federal law creates the cause of action or that the plaintiff's right to relief necessarily depends on a resolution of a substantial question of federal law.'” Gilmore v. Weatherford, 694 F.3d 1160, 1170 (10th Cir. 2012) (quoting Empire Healthcare Assurance, Inc. v. McVeigh, 547 U.S. 677, 690 (2006)). The well-pleaded-complaint rule provides that federal-question jurisdiction exists only when the federal question “is presented on the face of the plaintiff's properly pleaded complaint.” Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987). A court may consider only “the plaintiff's statement of his own cause of action” when determining whether a federal question exists. Louisville & Nashville R.R. v. Mottley, 211 U.S. 149, 152 (1908) (emphasis added). “[The p]laintiff is the master of his complaint, and he ‘may avoid federal jurisdiction by exclusive reliance on state law.'” Indahl v. Modrall, Sperling, Roehl, Harris & Sisk, P.A., No. 18-cv-0540 KBM/KRS, 2018 WL 6478608, at *3 (D.N.M. Dec. 10, 2018) (quoting Caterpillar Inc., 482 U.S. at 392). In determining whether to remand a case to state court, a court may properly consider whether the “[p]laintiff disavows any federal claims” in later briefing. Id. at *3.

         Here, no federal question appears on the face of Plaintiff's Complaint. There is no reference to federal law in any part of the Complaint. See [Doc. 1-1] at 12-16. Plaintiff's Complaint therefore fails the well-pleaded-complaint rule. At best, the Complaint is ambiguous; both federal and state law could provide a remedy for employment-discrimination claims. Yet, “[f]ederal courts have repeatedly held that vague, ambiguous, or passing references to federal law in a complaint are not sufficient to support removal based on federal[-]question jurisdiction.” Ambrose v. Grindell & Romero Ins., Inc., No. 17-cv-0681 MV/SMV, 2018 WL 1033201, at *4 (D.N.M. Feb. 23, 2018) (quoting Shelley's ...


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