Mathews v. Weber

Decision Date14 January 1976
Docket NumberNo. 74-850,74-850
Citation423 U.S. 261,96 S.Ct. 549,46 L.Ed.2d 483
PartiesF. David MATHEWS, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Petitioner, v. William G. WEBER
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

In addition to authorizing United States magistrates to perform certain specified statutory functions, the Federal Magistrates Act (Act) authorizes district courts to assign to magistrates "such additional duties as are not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b). Pursuant to that provision, the District Court adopted General Order No. 104-D, which, inter alia, requires initial reference to a magistrate of actions to review administrative determinations regarding entitlement to Social Security benefits, including Medicare. Respondent challenged the final determination of the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare that respondent was not entitled to claimed Medicare benefits. Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) a district court can review such a determination only on the basis of the pleadings and administrative record, and the court is bound by the Secretary's factual findings if supported by substantial evidence. The case was assigned to a District Judge and at the same time referred to a Magistrate to "prepare a proposed written order or decision, together with proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law where necessary or appropriate" for consideration by the District Judge after the Magistrate had reviewed the record and heard the parties' arguments. Contending that the reference to the Magistrate under the District Court's general order violated Fed.Rule Civ.Proc. 53(b) and was not authorized by the Act, the Secretary moved to vacate the order of reference. The District Court refused to vacate the reference order. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Held: In the context of this case, the preliminary-review function assigned to the Magistrate was one of the "additional duties" that the Act contemplates magistrates are to perform. Pp. 266-275.

(a) Section 636(b) was enacted to permit district courts to increase the scope of responsibilities that magistrates can undertake upon reference, as part of its plan "to establish a system capable of increasing the overall efficiency of the Federal judiciary." But Congress also intended that in such references the district judge retain ultimate responsibility for decisionmaking. Pp. 266-270.

(b) In this type of case the magistrate helps the court focus on the relevant portions of what might be a voluminous record and move directly to any substantial legal arguments, by putting before the court a preliminary evaluation of the evidence in the record. Although substantially assisting the court, the magistrate performs only a preliminary review of a closed administrative record, and any recommendation to the court is confined to whether or not substantial evidence supports the Secretary's decision. The final determination remains with the judge, who has discretion to review the record anew. Pp. 270-272.

(c) The order of reference here does not constitute the magistrate a special master and there is no conflict with the requirement of Fed.Rule Civ.Proc. 53(b) that "reference to a master shall be the exception and not the rule," made in nonjury cases "only upon a showing that some exceptional condition requires it." The magistrate here acts in an advisory role as a magistrate, not as a master; the judge is free to accept or reject the magistrate's recommendation in whole or in part, whereas under Rule 53(e) the court must accept a special master's finding of fact if it is not clearly erroneous. LaBuy v. Howes Leather Co., 352 U.S. 249, 77 S.Ct. 309, 1 L.Ed.2d 290, distinguished. Pp. 272-275.

9 Cir., 503 F.2d 1049, affirmed.

Argued by Michael Kimmel, Dept. of Justice, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Peter D. Ehrenhaft, Washington, D. C., as amicus curiae, in support of judgment below, by invitation of Court.

Mr. Chief Justice BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented in this case is whether the Federal Magistrates Act, 28 U.S.C. § 631 et seq., permits a United States district court to refer all Social Security benefit cases to United States magistrates for preliminary review of the administrative record, oral argument, and preparation of a recommended decision as to whether the record contains substantial evidence to support the administrative determination all subject to an independent decision, on the record, by the district judge who may, in his discretion, hear the whole matter anew.

(1)

Respondent Weber brought this action in the United States District Court for the Central District of California to challenge the final determination of the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare that he was not entitled to reimbursement under the Medicare provisions of the Social Security Act, as added, 79 Stat. 291, and amended 42 U.S.C. § 1395 et seq., for medical payments he made on behalf of his wife. Such a suit for judicial review is authorized by § 205(g) of the Federal Magistrates Act, as added, 53 Stat. 1370, and amended 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and governed by its standards. The court may consider only the pleadings and administrative record, and must accept the Secretary's findings of fact so long as they are supported by substantial evidence.

When respondent's complaint was filed, the Clerk of the court pursuant to court rule assigned the case to a named District Judge, and simultaneously referred it to a United States Magistrate with directions "to notice and conduct such factual hearings and legal argument as may be appropriate" and to "prepare a proposed written order or decision, together with proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law where necessary or appropriate" for consideration by the District Judge. The Clerk took these steps pursuant to General Order No. 104-D of the District Court, which requires initial reference to a magistrate in seven categories of review of administrative cases,1 including actions filed under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

The parties may object to the magistrate's recommendations. After acting on any objections the magistrate is to forward the entire file to the district judge to whom the case is assigned for decision; the District Judge "will calendar the matter for oral argument before him if he deems it necessary or appropriate."

The Secretary moved to vacate the order of reference, arguing (1) that referral under a general order of this type violated Fed.Rule Civ.Proc. 53(b) and (2) that such referral was not authorized by the Federal Magistrates Act. The Secretary also argued that the reference was of doubtful constitutionality and in contravention of the judicial review provisions of the Social Security Act, arguments that he has expressly declined to make in this Court. The District Court refused to vacate the order of reference, but certified the reference question for appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b).

The Court of Appeals affirmed. 503 F.2d 1049 (CA9 1974). That court stressed the limited and preliminary nature of the inquiry in review actions brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the limited scope of the Magistrate's role on reference, and the fact that final authority for decision remained with the District Judge. "Were the broad provisions of General Order No. 104-D . . . before us, the Secretary might have grounds to complain. As applied, the rule is not vulnerable to the attack here mounted." 503 F.2d, at 1051. The Court of Appeals thus reached a decision squarely in conflict with the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Ingram v. Richardson, 471 F.2d 1268 (1972). We granted certiorari, 420 U.S. 989, 95 S.Ct. 1422, 43 L.Ed.2d 669 (1975),2 and we affirm.

(2)

After several years of study, the Congress in 1968 enacted the Federal Magistrates Act, 28 U.S.C. § 631 et seq. The Act abolished the office of United States commissioner, and sought to "reform the first echelon of the Federal judiciary into an effective component of a modern scheme of justice by establishing a system of U.S. magistrates." S.Rep.No.371, 90th Cong., 1st Sess., 8 (1967) (hereafter Senate Report). In order to improve the former system and to attract the most competent men and women to the office, the Act in essence made the position analogous to the career service, replacing the fee system of compensation with substantial salaries; the Act also gave both full- and part-time magistrates a definite term of office, and required that wherever possible the district courts appoint only members of the bar to serve as magistrates. Magistrates took over most of the duties of the commissioners, and the Act gave them new authority to try a broad range of misdemeanors with the consent of the parties.

Title 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) outlines a procedure by which the district courts may call upon magistrates to perform other functions, in both civil and criminal cases. It provides:

"Any district court of the United States, by the concurrence of a majority of all the judges of such district court, may establish rules pursuant to which any full-time United States magistrate, or, where there is no full-time magistrate reasonably available, any part-time magistrate specially designated by the court, may be assigned within the territorial jurisdiction of such court such additional duties as are not inconsistent with the constitution and laws of the United States. The additional duties authorized by rule may include, but are not restricted to "(1) service as a special master in an appropriate civil action, pursuant to the applicable provisions of this title and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for the United States district courts;

"(2) assistance to a district judge in the conduct of pretrial or discovery proceedings in civil or criminal actions; and

"(3) preliminary review of applications for posttrial relief made by individuals convicted of criminal offenses, and submission of a...

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