Two 1st Judicial District Court judges are being sued in federal court by the Pueblo of Pojoaque over personal injury cases they’re presiding over involving two casinos.
Judge Bryan Biedscheid and Judge Matthew Wilson both have lawsuits before them involving personal injury claims at Buffalo Thunder and Cities of Gold Casino. Both casinos are on Pueblo land and the federal lawsuits question whether the two state court judges have jurisdiction to preside over personal injury cases against the casinos.
The Pueblo of Pojoaque did not respond to requests for comment.
In the case before Biedscheid, Rudy Pena is suing Buffalo Thunder for injuries he allegedly suffered when a casino worker told him to move away from a slot machine, which he said caused him to fall backward and hurt himself. In the state lawsuit, Pena said he has muscular dystrophy – he was using a cane and a scooter – and couldn’t move out of the way quickly for the worker.
Pena filed the lawsuit in district court in 2017. The Pueblo didn’t file the federal lawsuit against Biedscheid until early 2020.
In the case before Wilson, Henry Martinez is suing Cities of Gold Casino also for a personal injury claim when he allegedly slipped and fell on a plastic sheet that was laid out on the floor. Martinez’s lawsuit said there were no warning signs indicating a slip hazard or marking the area of the floor as dangerous.
Martinez filed his lawsuit against the Pueblo casino in late 2020, and the Pueblo filed its federal lawsuit against Wilson in April 2021.
In both lawsuits, Martinez and Pena claim their injuries occurred because of the negligent actions of casino employees. It’s this claim that becomes a vital sticking point for the lawsuits.
Both Biedscheid and Wilson denied the Pueblo’s motions to dismiss the cases for lack of jurisdiction, stating in their orders that, under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the Pueblo waives its right to sovereign immunity when injuries occur due to an employee’s actions.
It’s this decision that the current federal lawsuits against Biedscheid and Wilson hinge on, which determines the broader question of which courts can hear which cases involving Pueblos.
Biedscheid and Wilson are both being represented by the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office. Matt Baca, chief counsel for the office, said the judges are not being sued for their conduct, but as a function of having the cases on their docket.
“They’re trying to get the federal courts to declare that those cases have to be heard in tribal court,” Baca said. “The tribes’ issues appear to be more about the legal question as to whether or not their courts have exclusive jurisdiction to hear these cases and, again, not so much about the judges themselves.”
The issue of tribal jurisdiction versus state or federal is a highly complex issue and it does arise in New Mexico with some frequency, he said.
Generally speaking, Baca said there is the idea of judicial immunity for the decisions the judge makes in overseeing their court. However, these lawsuits are more about case jurisdiction rather than judicial actions.