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Third Circuit Holds Consent of All Parties to Magistrate Judge Jurisdiction Required Before Judgment Against Pennsylvania Prisoners

by Mark Wilson

On February 10, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed a lower court’s dismissal of two Pennsylvania prisoners’ federal civil rights claims because not all parties had consented to a magistrate judge’s jurisdiction.

In its precedential opinion, the Court said that the Federal Magistrates Act authorizes a magistrate judge to conduct any or all proceedings in a civil matter, on consent of the parties, as set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(l). Without the consent of all parties, however, the magistrate judge lacks jurisdiction to act.

On July 5, 2017, Dante Burton brought suit pro se in federal court for the Western District of Pennsylvania against seven employees at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) in Greene County, accusing them of retaliation. He moved to proceed in forma pauperis (IFP), also consenting to jurisdiction by a magistrate judge.

Five days later, before Defendants had been served, appeared or consented to his jurisdiction, the magistrate judge sua sponte dismissed Burton’s suit for failure to state a claim. On appeal, though, the Third Circuit vacated the dismissal because the magistrate denied Burton’s IFP motion without analyzing whether he qualified for IFP status. See: Burton v. Schamp, 707 F. App’x 754 (3d Cir. 2017).

On remand back at the district court, the magistrate judge again sua sponte dismissed Burton’s suit, and again judgment was entered before Defendants were served, appeared and consented to magistrate jurisdiction.

Meanwhile, on October 18, 2017, SCI-Houtzdale prisoner Mustafa Williams brought a pro se suit against prison officials in the same district court for deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs when they refused to accommodate his special diet request.

A magistrate judge also dismissed claims against two defendants in that case and granted summary judgment in favor of the third. However, none of the defendants had consented to his jurisdiction before the final order was entered, though one consented almost five months after the judgment in her favor.

Both Burton and Williams appealed, aided this time by counsel from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law and attorneys from Dechert LLP in Philadelphia. After consolidating the appeals, the Third Circuit reversed both decisions.

First, the Court held that “the magistrate judge didn’t have jurisdiction to decide” Burton’s case because Defendants had not been served, appeared or consented to magistrate jurisdiction, so “he could not dismiss it.”

Following the Seventh and Ninth Circuits, the Court rejected Defendants’ argument that only Burton’s consent was required to invoke the magistrate’s jurisdiction. “In order to confer Article III judicial authority upon a magistrate judge,” the Court said that the lower court incorrectly “read Section 636(c)(l)’s reference to the consent by the ‘parties’ to require the consent by any party.”

The Court also reversed judgment in Williams’ case, finding that consent to magistrate judge jurisdiction could not be implied from Defendants’ conduct, nor could it be given retroactively.

“By its very terms, post-judgment consent suggests that a non-Article III officer exercises a core Article III power before he has obtained the authority to do so,” explained the Court. “This puts the cart before the horse. Such consent cannot change the fact that, at the time a judgment was entered, Article III powers were exercised by a non-Article III officer who did not have the authority to do so.”

Thus the Court vacated the orders dismissing Burton’s complaint and granting dismissals and summary judgment in Williams’ case. “The Magistrate Judge had no authority to dismiss Williams’ and Burton’s complaints without obtaining the consent to magistrate judge jurisdiction not only from the prisoner-plaintiffs but of the defendants being dismissed from the case or granted summary judgment,” the Court concluded. See: Burton v. Schamp, 25 F.4th 213 (3d Cir. 2022).

Back at the district court, a magistrate judge again took up the prisoners’ cases, this time issuing a report and recommendation to be adopted by the court, so as not to run afoul of the Federal Magistrates Act.

On February 28, 2022, the magistrate recommended dismissal of Burton’s complaint without leave to amend “because he cannot state a claim.” See: Burton v. Schamp, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34554 (W.D. Pa.).

On March 2, 2022, the same magistrate, Keith A. Pesto, recommended dismissal of Williams’ claims against two defendants and summary judgment in favor of the third. See: Williams v. Wetzel, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 37638 (W.D. Pa.).

Both prisoners had 14 days to file objections. But none were docketed in Williams’ case before the deadline passed on March 16, 2022. Burton filed his objections, but on March 21, 2022, seven days after his deadline had passed. See: Williams v. Wetzel, USDC (W.D. Pa.), Case No. 3:17-cv-00192; and Burton v. Schamp, USDC (W.D. Pa.), Case No. 2:17-cv-00895. 

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Related legal cases

Burton v. Schamp

Burton v. Schamp

Burton v. Schamp