Saturday, May 20, 2017

An open question on Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(a)?

Concerning objections to a magistrate's non-dispositive order, the last sentence of FRCP 72(a) states:

The district judge in the case must consider timely objections and modify or set aside any part of the order that is clearly erroneous or is contrary to law.

But what does "contrary to law" mean?

Within a footnote in CRAWFORD v. US, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86685 (MD Fl 2016) one finds the text:

The Court notes some authority that the contrary to law standard invites plenary review of a magistrate judge's legal conclusions. See e.g., Haines v. Liggett Group, Inc., 975 F.2d 81, 91 (3d Cir. 1992); Milwaukee Carpenter's Dist. Council Health Fund v. Philip Morris, Inc., 70 F. Supp. 2d 888, 892 (E.D. Wis. 1999); Computer Econs., Inc. v. Gartner Group, Inc., 50 F. Supp. 2d 980, 983 & n.2 (S.D. Cal. 1999). In this Circuit, however, the contrary to law standard has been distinguished as more deferential than de novo review. See Merritt, 649 F.2d at 1016-17 ("[A] magistrate['s non-dispositive discovery orders] are reviewable under the 'clearly erroneous and contrary to law' standard; they are not subject to a de novo determination as are a magistrate's proposed findings and recommendations.") Nonetheless, even to the extent the contrary to law standard may invite some level of plenary review, it is evident that because a magistrate judge is afforded broad discretion [*5] as to discovery matters, reversal as to a magistrate's resolution of a discovery dispute is appropriate only where that discretion is abused. See Tracy P. v. Sarasota County, No. 8:05-CV-927-T-27EAJ, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 33988, 2007 WL 1364381, at * 2 (M.D. Fla. May 9, 2007) ("Magistrate judges are afforded broad discretion in the resolution of nondispositive discovery disputes. The magistrate's determination will therefore be overturned only if the magistrate judge abused her discretion or the decision is clearly erroneous."); Botta, 475 F. Supp. 2d at 185; Doe v. Hartford Life and Accident Ins. Co., 237 F.R.D. 545, 547-48 (D. N. J. 2006); Doe v. Marsh, 899 F. Supp. 933, 934 (N.D.N.Y. 1995); see also 12 Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller, & Richard L. Marcus, Federal Practice and Procedure ยง 3069 (2d ed. 1997) ("Regarding legal issues, the language 'contrary to law' appears to invite plenary review. But many matters such as discovery scheduling or disputes might better be characterized as suitable for an abuse-of-discretion analysis.").

One notes that the 2006 case from D. N.J. (within the Third Circuit) seems to be in conflict with the [earlier] 1992 decision of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which text states:

The district court is bound by the clearly erroneous rule in findings of facts; the phrase "contrary to law" indicates plenary review as to matters of law. See also Rule 72(a), Fed. R. Civ. P. ("Nondispositive Matters").

Also of note, within a single decision in the District of New Jersey (629 F. Supp. 2d 416):

A magistrate judge's order is contrary to law "when the magistrate judge has misinterpreted or misapplied the applicable law." Doe v. Hartford Life & Accident Ins. Co., 237 F.R.D. 545, 548 (D.N.J. 2006) (citing Pharm. Sales & Consulting Corp. v. J.W.S. Delavau Co., 106 F. Supp. 2d 761, 764 (D.N.J. 2000)). While a magistrate judge's decision typically is entitled to deference, "a magistrate judge's legal conclusions on a non-dispositive motion will be reviewed de novo." Id.

BUT (!)

A magistrate judge's ruling on a non-dispositive matter such as a discovery motion is [page 434] "entitled to great deference and is reversible only for abuse of discretion." Kresefky v. Panasonic Commc'ns & Sys. Co., 169 F.R.D. 54, 64 (D.N.J. 1996).

Does anyone have any thoughts on this?


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