Complacency Can Cost You Federal Removal

Removal to federal court requires defendants to turn square corners. A slip-up can cost federal jurisdiction. In Reyes v. Hess Retail Stores, a federal judge in Brooklyn, New York, showed how a clever plaintiff’s attorney outwitted the defense and precluded removal, from the moment the complaint was filed in state court. Here is a lesson for us all.

Ajay Suresh from New York, NY, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The 30-day time limit to remove a case from state court to federal court commences when the defendant receives a written demand that exceeds the federal jurisdictional minimum of $75,000. Typically, that demand is found in plaintiff’s complaint. But not in New York. By statute, state-court complaints may not include a specific monetary demand. The complaint may state that the amount demanded exceeds the jurisdictional limits of all lower courts. The statute permits a defendant to request a supplemental written demand for damages, which is exchanged between counsel but not filed in court. The 30-day removal period begins when defendant receives a responding demand in excess of $75,000, or any other written statement of damages.

But when the defendant in Reyes removed the case to federal court within that later time period, the district court ruled the removal was too late. Why?

Mr. Reyes’ complaint in state court made no specific monetary demand and stated the usual phrase that the demand exceeded the jurisdictional limits of all lower courts. But plaintiff’s attorney added one more critical phrase: “including the minimum threshold for federal jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332a) [the $75,000 requirement, softly spoken]. And that made the difference.

The defense had waited until it received a bill of particulars from plaintiff listing special damages totaling over $200,000 and then filed its notice of removal. The district court ruled that federal removal should have been filed within thirty days of service of the complaint: Any lawyer should know that alleging that plaintiff’s demand “exceeds the minimum threshold for federal jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §1332(a)” is no different than alleging the demand “exceeds $75,000.”

This court remanded the case to state court with this admonition from the court: “If plaintiff sought to capitalize on the possibility of defendant’s complacency, he was entitled to find a way to put explicit language in the complaint starting the removal period. That is what he did.” And that decision to remand is not appealable.

Don’t be complacent on federal removal issues. Read the complaint carefully.