• May 4, 2018

Photo by Andrew Russeth of Oldenburg and Thiebaud Art

One of the more complicated parts of our justice system (and our country’s governance) is the layers of federal and state law. Almost all of us have an understanding that the Supremacy Clause in the U.S. Constitution elevates federal law over state law. But the question of when federal laws and states laws conflict is not always easily answered.

Take, for example, when someone sues a former employer in federal court under the state’s Whistleblower Act and she seeks to add a claim against her former employer for punitive damages.

There is a Minnesota statute that sets out a procedure and a legal standard for adding a punitive damages claim. There is also a federal court rule, setting out a procedure and a legal standard for adding a punitive damages claim.

They are not identical. What’s a federal court supposed to do?

U.S. Magistrate Judge Becky R. Thorson (D. Minn.) recently worked through these issues in a decision of Ramirez v. AMPS Staffing, Inc. Ultimately, she concluded that the distinction between the state statute and the federal rule was irrelevant. She concluded that, under either standard, the Plaintiff’s motion to amend to add a punitive damage claim would be allowed to go forward. Along the way, though, Judge Thorson analyzed the issue in a way that civil litigators and civil procedure nerds should find interesting.

And, for those interested in employment law issues, the underlying facts may be of interest. The employer seems to have been so angry at departed employees that the employer decided to withhold earned wages, which violates the law. When Plaintiff Ramirez suggested that this might be illegal, she was fired shortly after — a cautionary tale in which a hot-headed and impulsive decision converted a misfortune into a bigger one?

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