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Birmingham Bar Association Bulletin - Summer 2014

Magistrate Referrals Wesley B. Gilchrist; Lightfoot Franklin White LLC1 Northern District’s System Of Referring Cases To Magistrate Judges Almost 20 years ago, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama implemented an innovative system of assigning civil cases to the Court’s magistrate judges. In the General Order for Referral of Civil Matters to the United States Magistrate Judges dated July 25, 1996, Chief Judge Sam C. Pointer, Jr. cited “the increasing caseload being experienced by the Court” as a driving force behind this measure and identified “full utilization of the judicial skills of the magistrate judges of the Court” as one solution “to provide more efficient and expedient handling” of civil cases. Since that time, the caseload of the Court has only increased, and the judicial skills of the Court’s magistrate judges have remained strong. The Court has maintained this system, which was most recently reiterated by Chief Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn in the General Order for Referral of Civil Matters to the United States Magistrate Judges dated January 14, 2013 (nunc pro tunc as of August 28, 2012).2 As an initial matter, it is important to understand the authority for referral of cases Authority for Referral to Magistrate Judges or matters to magistrate judges. That authority is expressly granted in 28 U.S.C. §  636(b)(1), part of the Federal Magistrates Act of 1976,3 and provides: “Notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary ... a district judge may designate a magistrate judge to hear and determine any pretrial matter pending before the court….” Fed. R. Civ. P. 72 also sets certain procedures that apply when a case or matter has been referred to a magistrate judge. The Referral Order references both § 636(b)(1) and Rule 72 and must be read in light of those provisions. Under the Referral Order, every sixth civil case filed in the Court, subject to a few exceptions, is randomly assigned to a magistrate judge for Basics of the Referral Order “all pretrial management.”4 This expressly includes “determination of all nondispositive motions in the case.”5 Only three types of cases are excluded from this process: (1) administrative agency appeals, (2) bankruptcy matters, and (3) any case seeking a temporary restraining order or other emergency relief.6 Of particular note, class actions are not excluded from the Referral Order. Upon assignment to a magistrate judge, the case is not also assigned to a district judge. Rather, after assignment to a magistrate To Consent or Not To Consent? judge, the parties are given an opportunity to consent under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) to the magistrate judge’s exercise of jurisdiction for all matters, including trial. Attorneys who practice in federal court should know the magistrate judge consent process. If such consent is given by all parties, then the case will be assigned to the magistrate judge “with full dispositive jurisdiction.”7 If consent under § 636(c) is not given in a case assigned to a magistrate judge under the Referral Order, then the case will still be assigned to the magistrate judge for all nondispositive matters without contemporaneous assignment to a district judge. Withholding consent to the magistrate judge’s exercise of full jurisdiction does not result in immediate reassignment of the case to a district judge. The remainder of this article addresses procedures in these nonconsent cases. Under § 636(b) (1)(A) and Rule 72(a), a party seeking review of a magistrate judge’s order on a nondispositive matter District Judge Review of Objections to Nondispositive Rulings must serve and file objections to the magistrate judge’s ruling within 14 days. Because a district judge has not also been assigned to the case, “the Clerk shall randomly select a district judge for that purpose and that purpose only.”8 This limited assignment to the district judge is by “special draw without regard to the Court’s divisions,” and the district judge assigned to the case to review the magistrate’s decision on a nondispositive matter “shall be responsible only for reviewing the specific order or ruling in question.”9 The magistrate judge retains referral jurisdiction for all other nondispositive matters. Paragraph 5 of the Referral Order contains specific procedures for a magistrate judge’s ruling on a motion to remand a Special Rules for Motions to Remand 22 Birmingham Bar Association


Birmingham Bar Association Bulletin - Summer 2014
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