Fourth Circuit Holds Magistrate Judge’s Jurisdiction Does Not Require Consent of Absent Class Members | Blogs | Consumers Group Defense Lawyer

Federal law delimits the exercise of a magistrate’s jurisdiction over a civil matter. More specifically, with the “consent of the parties”, a magistrate may conduct “all or part of the proceedings[. . . ]. . and order the entry of judgment. 28 USC § 636(c)(1). Recently, in McAdams vs. Robinson, 26 F.4th 149 (4th Cir. 2022), the Fourth Circuit determined that the word “parties” in that statute does not include absent class members. Therefore, a magistrate may conduct proceedings and pronounce judgment with the consent of only the named parties.

The case began as a putative consumer class action lawsuit, when Demetrius and Tamara Robinson alleged that Nationstar Mortgage LLC violated federal and state law by failing to process loss mitigation claims in a timely manner. Six years after the Robinsons filed their case, the named parties submitted a proposed settlement agreement seeking court approval of a class settlement and jointly requested to appear before a trial judge. The proposed settlement included a fund of $3,000,000, with $300,000 allocated to administrative expenses and $1,300,000 allocated to attorneys’ fees. The designated trial judge, who was also the mediator for the settlement negotiations, reviewed and approved the settlement agreement and the request for attorney’s fees.

Pia McAdams, an absent class member who was pursuing a separate class action lawsuit against Nationstar, objected on a variety of grounds. The magistrate dismissed those objections, and McAdams appealed.

On appeal, McAdams argued that the magistrate lacked jurisdiction to enter judgment because she had not consented to the appointment. While acknowledging that absent class members may be parties for certain purposes (citing Devlin vs. Scardeletti, 536 US 1, 9-10 (2002)), the Fourth Circuit rejected McAdams’ argument. He interpreted the term “parties” in 28 USC § 636(c)(1) to mean named parties only. The court held that the ordinary meaning of the word “party” includes “those whose names are named as plaintiff or defendant and those who can control the proceedings”. Finding that absent class members do not meet this definition because they “are not named parties and cannot control the proceedings,” the court noted the significant practical benefits of this interpretation. If the absent members of the class were “parties,” the district courts would have to notify the entire class of the “availability of a magistrate” to conduct the proceedings and order entry of judgment. 28 USC § 636(c)(2). In rejecting this result, the court explained that such an opinion would be “unduly burdensome on the clerk”.

With this result, the Fourth Circuit joins the Third, Seventh, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits in ruling that absent class members are not “parties” for purposes of the consent necessary for a trial judge to have jurisdiction over the proceedings. judicial proceedings or to order the entry of judgment. At a minimum, this interpretation rationalizes the ability of named parties to obtain the supervision of a justice of the peace, if they wish, in class cases. Class action plaintiffs and defendants can pursue this appointment in hopes of a faster and less costly judgment without fear that absent class members will hinder these efforts.

Despite the Fourth Circuit’s ruling, defendants should beware of the Supreme Court’s caveat that absent class members “may be parties for certain purposes.” For example, many courts have imposed limits on contact with putative class members (as if they were quasi-represented parties), even though they are not formally considered “parties” under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1) for consent to a trial judge. If you are unsure whether an absent class member is a party in different contexts, you should consult your legal counsel.

Thelma J. Longworth