538 U.S. 580 (2003), 02-69, Roell v. Withrow

Docket Nº:No. 02-69.
Citation:538 U.S. 580, 123 S.Ct. 1696, 155 L.Ed.2d 775, 71 U.S.L.W. 4336
Party Name:ROELL ET AL. v. WITHROW
Case Date:April 29, 2003
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 580

538 U.S. 580 (2003)

123 S.Ct. 1696, 155 L.Ed.2d 775, 71 U.S.L.W. 4336

ROELL ET AL.

v.

WITHROW

No. 02-69.

United States Supreme Court

April 29, 2003

Argued February 26, 2003

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

The Federal Magistrate Aet of 1979 (Aet) empowers full-time magistrate judges to conduct "any or all proceedings in a jury or nonjury cvil matter and order the entry of judgment in the ease," as long as they are "specially designated ... by the district court" and acting with "the consent of the parties." 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1). Respondent Withrow, a state prisoner, brought an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against mem­bers of the prison's medical staff, petitioners Roell, Garibay, and Reagan, alleging that they had deliberately disregarded his medical needs in violation of the Eighth Amendment. During a preliminary hearing, the Magistrate Judge told Withrow that he could choose to have her rather than the District Judge preside over the entire case. Withrow agreed orally and later in writing, but the petitioners did not at that point give their consent. Without waiting for their decision, the District Judge referred the case to the Magistrate Judge for final disposition, but with the caveat that all petitioners would have an opportunity to consent to her jurisdiction, and that the referral order would be vacated if any of them did not consent. Only Reagan gave written consent to the refer­ral; Roell and Garibay said nothing about the referral. The case nevertheless proceeded in front of the Magistrate Judge, all the way to a jury verdict and judgment for the petitioners. Roell and Garibay voluntarily participated in the entire course of proceedings and voiced no objection when, at several points, the Magistrate Judge made it clear that she believed they had consented. When Withrow appealed, the Fifth Circuit sua sponte remanded the case to the District Court to determine whether the parties had consented to proceed before the Magistrate Judge. Only then did Roell and Garibay file a formal letter of consent stating that they consented to all of the prior proceedings before the Magistrate Judge. The District Court referred the Fifth Circuit's enquiry to that same Magistrate Judge, who reported that by their actions Roell and Garibay clearly implied their consent to her jurisdiction, but ruled that she had lacked jurisdiction because, under Circuit precedent, such consent had to be expressly given. The District Court adopted the report and recommendation. The Fifth Circuit affirmed, holding that, under § 636(c)(1), lack of consent and defects in the referral order are nonwaivable jurisdictional errors, that § 636(c) consent must be express,

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and that petitioners' postjudgment consent was inadequate under the Act.

Held:

Consent to a magistrate judge's designation can be inferred from a party's conduct during litigation. Roell's and Garibay's general appear­ances before the Magistrate Judge, after they had been told of their right to be tried by a district judge, supply the consent necessary for the Magistrate Judge's "civil jurisdiction" under § 636(e)(1). It is true that § 636(c)(2) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73(b), which establish the procedures for a § 636(e)(1) referral, envision advance, written consent communicated to the clerk. This procedure is by no means just advisory, and district courts are bound to adhere strictly to it. But the text and structure of § 636(c) as a whole indicate that a defect in the referral under § 636(c)(2) does not eliminate that magistrate judge's "civil jurisdiction" under § 636(e)(1) as long as the parties have in fact voluntarily consented. So far as concerns full-time magistrate judges, § 636(c)(1), which is the font of magistrate judge authority, speaks only of "the consent of the parties," without qualification as to form, and § 636(c)(3) similarly provides that "[t]he consent of the parties allows" a full-time magistrate judge to enter a final, appealable judgment of the district court. These unadorned references to the "consent of the parties" contrast with the language in § 636(c)(1) covering referral to certain part-time magistrate judges, which requires not only that the parties consent, but that they do so by "specific written request." In addition, there is a good pragmatic reason to think that Congress in­tended to permit implied consent. In giving magistrate judges case-dispositive civil authority, Congress hoped to relieve the district courts' caseload while still preserving every litigant's right to insist on trial before an Article III district judge. Strict insistence on the express consent requirement embodied in § 636(c)(2) would minimize any risk to the latter objective, but it would create an even greater risk to the former one: the risk of a full and complicated trial wasted at the option of an undeserving and possibly opportunistic litigant. Here, Withrow gave express, written consent; he thus received the protection intended by the statute and deserves no boon from the other side's failure. Had the outcome of the case been different, the shoe might be on the other foot; insistence on the bright line would let parties in Roell's and Garibay's position hedge their bets, keeping a poker face to conceal their failure to file the form, and then sandbagging the other side when the judgment turned out not to their liking. The preferable rule, which does better by the mix of congressional objectives, is to infer consent from a litigant's general appearance before the magistrate judge, after having been told of his right to be tried by a district judge. Pp. 585-591.

288 F.3d 199, reversed and remanded.

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Souter, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and O'Connor, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Stevens, Scalia, and Kennedy, JJ., joined, post, p. 591.

Lisa R. Eskow, Deputy Solicitor General of Texas, argued the cause for petitioners. With her on the briefs were Greg Abbott, Attorney General, Philip A. Lionberger, former Solicitor General, R. Ted Cruz, Solicitor General, Melanie P. Sarwal, Assistant Solicitor General, and Charles K. Eldred, Assistant Attorney General.

Amanda Frost argued the cause for respondent. With her on the brief was Brian Wolf man.

SOUTER, JUSTICE.

The Federal Magistrate Act of 1979 (Federal Magistrate Act or Act) expanded the power of magistrate judges by au­thorizing them to conduct "any or all proceedings in a jury or nonjury civil matter and order the entry of judgment in the case," as long as they are "specially designated ... by the district court" and are acting "[u]pon the consent of the parties." 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1). The question is whether consent can be inferred from a party's conduct during litigation, and we hold that it can be.

I

Respondent Jon Michael Withrow is a Texas state prisoner who brought an action under Rev. Stat. § 1979, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against members of the prison's medical staff, peti­tioners Joseph Roell, Petra Garibay, and James Reagan, al­leging that they had deliberately disregarded his medical needs in violation of the Eighth Amendment. See Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976). During a preliminary hearing before a Magistrate Judge to determine whether the suit could proceed in forma pauperis, see 28 U.S.C. § 1915, the Magistrate Judge told Withrow that he could choose to have

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her rather than the District Judge preside over the entire case. App. 10-11. Withrow agreed orally, id., at 11, and later in writing, App. to Pet. for Cert. 20a. A lawyer from the Texas attorney general's office who attended the hearing, but was not permanently assigned to Withrow's case, indicated that she would have to "talk to the attorneys who have been assigned the case to see if [the petitioners] will execute consent forms." App. 11.

Without waiting for the petitioners' decision, the District Judge referred the case to the Magistrate Judge for final disposition, but with the caveat that "all defendants [would] be given an opportunity to consent to the jurisdiction of the magistrate judge," and that the referral order would be va­cated if any of the defendants did not consent. App. to Pet. for Cert. 21a. The Clerk of Court sent the referral order to the petitioners along with a summons directing them to include "[i]n their answer or in a separate pleading ... a statement that 'All defendants consent to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge' or 'All defendants do not consent to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge.'" App. 13. The summons advised them that "[t]he court shall not be told which parties do not consent." Ibid. Only Reagan, who was represented by private counsel, gave written consent to the referral; Roell and Garibay, who were represented by an assistant in the attorney general's office, filed answers but said nothing about the referral. App. to Pet. for Cert. 17a.

The case nevertheless proceeded in front of the Magistrate Judge, all the way to a jury verdict and judgment for the petitioners. When Withrow appealed, the Court of Appeals sua sponte remanded the case to the District Court to "determine whether the parties consented to proceed before the magistrate judge and, if so, whether the consents were oral or written." Id., at 13a. It was only then that Roell and Garibay filed a formal letter of consent with the District

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Court, stating that "they consented to all proceedings before this date before the United States Magistrate Judge, including disposition of their motion for summary judgment and trial." Id., at 22a.

The District Court nonetheless referred the Court of Appeals's enquiry to the same Magistrate Judge who had...

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