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Litigation News

Litigation News | 2020

Unhappy with a Magistrate Judge’s Ruling? Know the Rules and Act Promptly

Karen L Stevenson


  • The article explains the role of magistrate judges in federal court, primarily handling nondispositive rulings on discovery issues.
  • Promptly challenging a magistrate judge's ruling through objections and seeking reconsideration by the district judge is crucial.
  • Understanding local rules is essential, as they may vary by district, and obtaining a stay of the magistrate judge's ruling during reconsideration can help avoid potential sanctions or contempt motions.
Unhappy with a Magistrate Judge’s Ruling? Know the Rules and Act Promptly
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A few months ago, I granted a motion to compel and ordered the defendant to produce documents by a certain date. The defendant thought my ruling was wrong and filed a motion before the presiding district judge for review. The defendant did not file a request before me to stay my order compelling production. Instead, the defendant included a request for a stay of my ruling in the motion for review filed with the district judge. Weeks later, the district judge denied the defendant’s motion for reconsideration but never ruled on the stay request. Therefore, under the local rules of this district, my original order remained in effect as issued, and the defendant still had not produced the documents.

The plaintiff—thoroughly frustrated at having won the motion to compel, having defeated the defendant’s motion for reconsideration before the district judge, but still without the documents—filed a motion for an order of civil contempt and sanctions against the defendant for failure to comply with a court order. The plaintiff argued that under the district’s local rules, in the absence of a stay, my order compelling production remained effective, and the defendant had not complied with the order.

The district judge referred the civil contempt motion back to me for resolution by report and recommendation. During oral argument on the contempt motion, defense counsel conceded that no stay of the order compelling production was ever granted. Counsel also acknowledged that she should have either sought a stay from me or promptly requested a ruling from the district judge on the request for stay that was included in the motion for reconsideration. She did neither. Now what?

Magistrate Judge’s Authority to Issue Nondispositive Rulings

In federal court, civil cases are typically assigned to a district judge and a magistrate judge. The district judge, an Article III judicial officer with life tenure, oversees the case, sets the case management schedule, and handles all dispositive motions and trial proceedings. A magistrate judge, on the other hand, is an Article I judicial officer, appointed for an eight-year term by the district court in which he or she sits. Magistrate judges generally handle discovery in civil cases, settlement conferences, and other pretrial issues that may be referred to the magistrate judge by the district judge as authorized by statute or by a general order of the district court.

The specific responsibilities of magistrate judges vary somewhat from district to district. But in most districts, they rule on discovery issues, including motions to compel, privilege disputes, motions to quash, motions for protective orders, and deposition disputes. Because these discovery rulings are not final adjudications on the merits of claims or issues in the case, a magistrate judge’s rulings on these pretrial issues are nondispositive.

Unless all parties have given written consent to have the matter proceed before the magistrate judge for all purposes, a party unhappy with a magistrate judge’s ruling can object to the order under the procedures outlined in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72 and seek reconsideration by the district judge. The right decision about how to proceed obviously requires careful consideration of how important the issue is for the client’s overall case and the procedural posture of the litigation.

Is the discovery essential to depositions? Is the discovery cut-off fast approaching? Are you likely to win the motion for reconsideration, or will this motion simply delay the case and perhaps annoy the district judge? These and other questions likely will factor into the strategic assessment. But when you think the issue at stake warrants challenging the magistrate judge’s ruling, you must act promptly. Otherwise, as the anecdote described suggests, the consequences can be dire.

Challenging a Magistrate Judge’s Nondispositive Ruling

Rule 72(a) provides that “[w]hen a pretrial matter not dispositive of a party’s claim or defense is referred to a magistrate judge to hear and decide, the Magistrate Judge must promptly conduct the required proceedings and, when appropriate, issue a written order stating the decision.” Rule 72(a) also provides that “[a] party may serve and file objections to the order within 14 days after being served with a copy. A party may not assign as error a defect in the order not timely objected to.”

Under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A), a district judge may reconsider a magistrate judge’s determination of a nondispositive pretrial matter if the magistrate judge’s order is “clearly erroneous or contrary to law.” To find that the magistrate judge’s decision is clearly erroneous, the district court must have “a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.”

The particular procedures and format for challenging a magistrate judge’s pretrial nondispositive ruling are governed by the local rules of the district where the case is pending. In the Central District of California, for example, Local Rule 72-2.1 requires that, within 14 days of service of a written ruling, a “party objecting under F.R.Civ.P. 72(a) to a Magistrate Judge’s ruling on a pretrial matter not dispositive of a claim or defense must file a motion for review by the assigned District Judge, designating the specific portions of the ruling objected to and stating the grounds for the objection.”

In the Northern District of California, Local Rule 72-2 provides that any objection filed under Rule 72(a) “must be made as a ‘Motion for Relief from Nondispositive Pretrial Order of Magistrate Judge’” and may not exceed five pages, exclusive of declarations and exhibits. In the Eastern District of California, under Local Rule 303(c), a party must file a request for reconsideration and serve all parties and the magistrate judge. But what happens while you are awaiting a decision on the motion for review? It depends.

Seeking an Affirmative Stay of the Magistrate Judge’s Ruling

Here, knowledge of the local rules of the district is essential. Simply filing an objection or a motion for review may not automatically stay the magistrate judge’s ruling. In the Central District of California, Local Rule 72-2 provides that whether or not a motion for review is filed, “the Magistrate Judge’s ruling remains in effect unless the ruling is stayed or modified by the Magistrate Judge or the District Judge” (emphasis added). Thus, in the Central District, if the objecting party does not obtain an order staying the magistrate judge’s ruling, that ruling remains in effect and must be complied with.

But local rules are just that—local. In the Eastern District of California, Local Rule 303(b) provides that “[r]ulings by Magistrate Judges pursuant to this Rule shall be final if no reconsideration thereof is sought from the Court within fourteen (14) days calculated from the date of service of the ruling on the parties” (emphasis added). This local rule does not explicitly stay the magistrate judge’s order, but it arguably suggests the magistrate judge’s ruling is not effective during reconsideration if a motion for reconsideration is brought within the initial 14-day period. But if in doubt, why guess?

Seek an order staying the magistrate judge’s ruling pending reconsideration. Without a stay, unless the losing party can identify a local rule or case law providing otherwise, if the motion for reconsideration is denied and the party has not complied with the magistrate judge’s order, counsel may risk sanctions or, worse, a motion for civil contempt. This is where counsel found herself in the hearing on the motion for civil contempt before me. An unfortunate and avoidable circumstance.