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Fifth Circuit Holds Magistrate Judge Has No Authority to Deem Motion for Reconsideration Withdrawn

by Matt Clarke

On August 21, 2018, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a federal magistrate judge had no authority to sua sponte deem a motion for reconsideration withdrawn in a pro se civil rights complaint. 

Former Texas state prisoner Eric Lawson filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that prison officials “denied him access to programs and services, including sex offender treatment.” After the district court dismissed the case without prejudice, Lawson filed a motion “requesting reconsideration based on circumstances beyond plaintiff’s control.” A magistrate judge withdrew the motion sua sponte almost seven months later. Lawson then filed a notice of appeal.

The Fifth Circuit liberally construed the motion for reconsideration as a motion to alter or amend the judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e). A Rule 59(e) motion tolls the deadline for filing a notice of appeal until an order is entered disposing of the motion. However, the motion was not disposed of because “the magistrate judge’s decision to withdraw Lawson’s Rule 59(e) motion was not a legally binding disposition.” 

The appellate court held that in cases where the parties have not consented to have a magistrate judge try the case, Article III of the U.S. Constitution reserves the power to “dispose of cases or controversies” to Article III judges. A magistrate judge is empowered by statute, not Article III. Thus, a magistrate judge cannot dispose of such cases or controversies, and a district court judge cannot delegate to a magistrate the power to make such decisions. 

The Fifth Circuit held that deciding a Rule 59(e) motion is a substantial decision because denying it may end the case while granting it may alter or amend an earlier judgment. Thus, the magistrate judge’s sua sponte withdrawal of Lawson’s Rule 59(e) motion was ultra vires and without legal consequence. That meant the motion was still pending and the Court of Appeals lacked jurisdiction to hear the appeal. Therefore, the appellate court held the appeal in abeyance and issued a limited remand to allow the district court to first rule on the Rule 59(e) motion. See: Lawson v. Stephens, 900 F.3d 715 (5th Cir. 2018).

On September 13, 2018, the Fifth Circuit issued another decision indicating the district court had granted Lawson’s motion for reconsideration, making the appeal moot. See: Lawson v. Stephens, 738 Fed. Appx. 264 (5th Cir. 2018). The case remains pending.

Prisoners who consent to having a magistrate judge oversee their federal suit – and those who do not – should take note of this ruling. 

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Related legal case

Lawson v. Stephens