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Once a notice of removal is filed, the state court shall proceed no further unless and until the case is remanded. 28 U.S.C.S. § 1446(d). The state court loses all jurisdiction over the case, and, being without jurisdiction, its subsequent proceedings and judgment are not simply erroneous, but absolutely void. Every order thereafter made in that court is coram non judice, meaning not before a judge.
In 1979, the Office of the Superintendent of Catholic Schools of the Archdiocese of San Juan created a trust to administer a pension plan for employees of Catholic schools (the “Trust”). Among the participating schools were Perpetuo Socorro Academy, San Ignacio de Loyola Academy, and San Jose Academy. In 2016, active and retired employees of the academies filed complaints in the Puerto Rico Court of First Instance alleging that the Trust had terminated the plan, eliminating the employees’ pension benefits. The employees named as a defendant the “Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church of Puerto Rico,” which the employees claimed was a legal entity with supervisory authority over all Catholic institutions in Puerto Rico. The Court of First Instance, in an order affirmed by the Puerto Rico Court of Appeals, denied a preliminary injunction requiring the payment of benefits, but the Puerto Rico Supreme Court reversed. The Supreme Court concluded that if the Trust did not have the necessary funds to meet its obligations, the participating employers would be obligated to pay. However, since there was a dispute as to which defendants in the case had legal personalities, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the Court of First Instance. Meanwhile, the Archdiocese removed the case to the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico. Notwithstanding such removal, the Court of First Instance determined that the Roman Catholic Apostolic Church in Puerto Rico” was the only defendant with separate legal personhood; thus, it ordered the Church to make payments to the employees in accordance with the pension plan. The decision was affirmed by the Puerto Rico Supreme Court. The archdiocese petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari.
Under the circumstances, was it proper for the Puerto Rico court to issue payment and seizure orders against the Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church of Puerto Rico?
The Supreme Court concluded that the Puerto Rico court of first instance lacked jurisdiction to issue certain payment and seizure orders directed to the Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church in Puerto Rico after the proceeding was removed to federal court, but before the federal court remanded the proceeding back to the Puerto Rico court. At that time, the court of first instance had no jurisdiction over the proceeding. The orders were therefore void. Moreover, the Court held that although Puerto Rico courts did not have Article III jurisdiction, the preferable course at this point was to remand the case to the Puerto Rico courts to consider how to proceed in light of the jurisdictional defect the Supreme Court had identified.