Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A post for Fed Jur buffs only

Parties in a class action agree to submit to the jurisdiction of an Article I magistrate under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).  Then they settle the case.  Objectors show up, but have not consented to have the case heard by a magistrate.  Does the magistrate still have jurisdiction or does an Article III judge have to weigh in? 

Section 636(c) requires consent by "parties."  Are unnamed class members parties under § 636(c)?  One can't just give the answer of a blanket "no"; the statute and federal rules are silent, and Devlin v. Scardelletti, 536 U.S. 1 (2002), says that class members are sometimes "parties," and sometimes not. 

The problem, of course, is the possibility of heads-I-win/tails-you-lose gamesmanship, with an objector throwing a wrench into the proceedings by protesting after the fact that the court didn't have jurisdiction.  See, e.g., Mark I, Inc. v. Gruber, 38 F.3d 369, 370 (7th Cir. 1994) (vacating final decision of magistrate made after two years of litigation on jurisdictional grounds). To a certain extent, the Mark I problem has been eliminated by Roell v. Withrow, 538 U.S. 580, 590 (2003), which allows a court to infer consent by acquiescence. More worrying is the possibility that an objector in good faith appeals a magistrate's ruling to an appellate court, only to learn that the appellate court does not have jurisdiction and she missed the deadline for appealing to the district court.

It's an interesting academic question, but litigants don't like the uncertainty of academic questions.  It's come up in an objection CCAF made, and we've asked the court for clarification—since no one else seems to have even thought of the issue.

Well, perhaps someone did think of it.  A so-called professional objector has the incentive to sandbag, since the business model is to lose at the district court level and then threaten a colorable appeal that would delay the class counsel payday unless paid off; a defendant is likely indifferent to delay.  What astonishes me most, however, is that plaintiffs' attorneys asking the court for $2900/hour, and presumably concerned about "professional objectors" coming in and holding up the settlement and their attorneys' fees, didn't anticipate this potentially fatal flaw.  If the attorneys who think they're worth $2900/hour are missing this basic issue-spotting that I caught, maybe I'm worth $3000/hour and even more underpaid than I thought.  (And in that case, you, loyal reader, have just benefited from $1500 worth of my time.)

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