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Gress v. Smith

United States District Court, E.D. California

June 29, 2017

DR. CHRISTOPHER SMITH, et al., Defendants.



         This matter is before the Court pursuant to Plaintiff Michael Gress's (“Plaintiff”) “Request for Reconsideration by the District Court of Magistrate Judge's Ruling.” (ECF No. 155.) Defendants oppose Plaintiff's request. (ECF No. 158.) Plaintiff has filed a reply. (ECF No. 160.) The Court has carefully considered the arguments raised by the parties. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's request is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff's request presents the Court with three questions. First: did the magistrate judge exceed his authority under the Federal Magistrates Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 631-639, by dismissing Defendants' motions for summary judgment without prejudice? This is a straightforward issue of statutory interpretation. For the reasons set forth below, the Court concludes that the answer is “yes.” Second: what happens next, given the complex factual and procedural circumstances of this case? Third: should “this matter be referred to the Assigned District Judge moving forward, ” as Plaintiff's counsel requests? (ECF No. 155 at 9.)

         II. Factual and Procedural Background

         This is a factually complicated case arising from the medical treatment for Plaintiff's meningioma. (ECF No. 116 at 5.) Plaintiff is a state prisoner, represented by pro bono counsel, pursuing “claims for deliberate indifference and medical malpractice[.]” (ECF No. 155 at 2.) Plaintiff's factual allegations span a period from 2005 to 2012 and twelve individual Defendants remain in the case. (ECF No. 116 at 5.)

         Plaintiff seeks reconsideration of two orders which the magistrate judge issued sua sponte. The first order, filed March 16, 2017, purported to dismiss Defendants' pending motions for summary judgment (ECF No. 117-122) without prejudice. (ECF No. 152.) The second order, filed March 23, 2017, purported to allow Defendants to file a single, amended motion for summary judgment or re-notice their previously filed motions for summary judgment. (ECF No. 154.)

         In order to resolve Plaintiff's request for reconsideration, the lead up to these orders must be put in context. The operative date of the six summary judgment motions at issue was August 15, 2016.[1] On November 14, 2016, Plaintiff timely filed an opposition and evidentiary objections to the motions. (ECF Nos. 130-38.) The opposition relies in part on the declaration of Dr. Howard Slyter (ECF No. 132-1.) On December 6, 2016, Defendants filed a request for an extension of time “to depose Dr. Slyter and prepare an appropriate reply.” (ECF No. 139 at 2.) On December 12, 2016, the magistrate judge found that Defendants were entitled to depose Dr. Slyter, but that given the holidays, it would be unreasonable to expect Dr. Slyter to be available for deposition prior to December 30, 2016. (ECF No. 141 at 2.) The magistrate judge ordered that “Dr. Slyter [be made] available for deposition on or before January 18, 2017” and that “Defendants shall file their reply to the opposition to the pending motions on or before February 15, 2017.” (ECF No. 141 at 2.) Plaintiff asked the magistrate judge to reconsider this order (ECF No. 142), but this request was denied (ECF No. 143). On December 15, 2016, the case was also set for a mandatory settlement conference and the deadlines set in the December 12, 2016, order were vacated. (ECF No. 143 at 2.) On January 9, 2017, the settlement conference was continued to March 20, 2017, in light of defense counsel's unexpected medical leave. (ECF No. 147.)

         III. Analysis

         A. Scope of Authority under the Federal Magistrates Act

         “The Federal Magistrates Act . . . governs the jurisdiction and authority of federal magistrates.” United States v. Reyna-Tapia, 328 F.3d 1114, 1118 (9th Cir. 2003) (en banc). “The authority of magistrate judges is a question of law subject to de novo review.” Mitchell v. Valenzuela, 791 F.3d 1166, 1168 (9th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted). The Federal Magistrate Act “provides that certain matters . . . may be referred to a magistrate judge for decision, while certain other matters . . . may be referred only for evidentiary hearing, proposed findings, and recommendations.” Flam v. Flam, 788 F.3d 1043, 1046 (9th Cir. 2015). The “textual basis” for distinguishing between these two categories is found in 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). Id. In relevant part, “Section 636(b)(1)(A) states that a magistrate judge may ‘hear and determine any pretrial matter pending before the court except a motion for injunctive relief, for judgment on the pleadings, for summary judgment, to dismiss or quash an indictment or information made by the Defendant, to suppress evidence in a criminal case, to dismiss or to permit maintenance of a class action, to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, and to involuntarily dismiss an action.'” Id. (emphasis added). Consequently, the question is whether the magistrate judge has “determined” the motions for summary judgment. See Dollar v. Gutierrez, 111 F.Supp.3d 1114, 1119 n.1 (D. Nev. 2015).

         The Court concludes the magistrate judge determined Defendants' motions for summary judgment when he dismissed them without prejudice. In doing so, the Court found the district court's opinion in Dollar persuasive. There the district court concluded “[a]n order denying a motion to dismiss or granting it with leave to amend is a determination of the motion.” Id. The challenged orders (ECF Nos. 152, 154) terminated the Defendants' pending motions for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 117-122). The Court simply cannot say these motions have not been “determined.” See Ex parte Colao, 10 F.Supp. 608, 608 (S.D.N.Y. 1934) (“The word ‘determine, ' in its legal use, means: ‘To come to an end. To bring to an end.') (citing 2 Black.Com. 121).

         The Court notes that it located another district court opinion within the Ninth Circuit that concluded a magistrate judge does not exceed his authority by denying one of the motions listed in § 636(b)(1)(A) without prejudice. Florence v. Stanback, 607 F.Supp.2d 1119, 1120-21 (C.D. Cal. 2009). It did so because it concluded the order at issue was not a “dispositive order, as it did not dispose of any claim or defense.” Id. at 1121. The Court will briefly explain why this is not the test for motions listed in § 636(b)(1)(A) and identify the source of the confusion as it has infected the briefing in the instant case. (Compare ECF No. 158 at 2 (arguing the magistrate judge did not exceed his authority because “the subject orders do not constitute a ruling on the merits of the motions for summary judgment” and were not “dispositive of a claim or defense”) with ECF No. 160 at 2 (arguing that the orders were dispositive because the magistrate judge “dismiss[ed] Defendants' motions for summary judgment [a]fter the [dispositive motion] filing deadline”).)

         The source of the confusion is the Ninth Circuit's “functional approach” test for matters not specifically listed in § 636(b)(1)(A) and the use of the word “dispositive” to categorize the matters a magistrate judge may not hear and determine irrespective of whether they are listed in § 636(b)(1)(A). Ninth Circuit precedent has made clear that “the eight exceptions [listed in § 636(b)(1)(A)] are not an exhaustive list of all the pretrial matters that are excepted from the magistrate judge's authority.” United States v. Rivera-Guerrero, 377 F.3d 1064, 1067 (9th Cir. 2004). Consequently, under Ninth Circuit precedent, so-called “[d]ispositive matters are those listed in section 636(b)(1)(A), as well as ‘analogous' matters.” Mitchell, 791 F.3d at 1168. The Ninth Circuit employs a “functional approach” to determine what additional matters not listed in § 636(b)(1)(A) are also excepted from the magistrate judge's authority. Flam, 788 F.3d at 1046. Under that approach, the district court “looks to the effect of the motion, in order to determine whether it is properly characterized as dispositive or non-dispositive of a claim or defense of a party.” Mitchell, 791 F.3d at 1168. In short, the functional approach operates like a ratchet. It only excludes from the magistrate judge's authority matters not specifically identified in ยง ...

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