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Wharton-Thomas v. United States

decided: November 23, 1983; As Amended December 1, 1983.

JANE WHARTON-THOMAS, APPELLANT
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, UNITED STATES POST OFFICE AND PASQUALE J. DI FRANCISCO, JOINTLY, SEVERALLY AND/OR IN THE ALTERNATIVE, APPELLEES



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY

Weis, Higginbotham and Sloviter, Circuit Judges.

Author: Weis

Opinion OF THE COURT

WEIS, Circuit Judge.

This appeal is from a judgment entered by a magistrate after a bench trial. The parties had consented to trial and entry of judgment in accordance with 1979 amendments to Federal Magistrates Act. We conclude that this procedure does not violate Article III of the United States Constitution and, on the merits, we affirm.

Plaintiff brought suit against the United States under the Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b), 2671-2680 (1976 & Supp. V 1981), seeking compensation for personal injuries allegedly received in an automobile collision with a Postal Service vehicle. With the parties' consent, the case was tried before a federal magistrate, who found for plaintiff and entered a judgment of $7,500 in her favor. Plaintiff appealed directly to this court.

Within the space of five months, plaintiff was injured in two automobile accidents. The first, occurring on May 27, 1977, was a minor collision between the plaintiff's station wagon and the post office jeep. The testimony established that both vehicles were moving slowly, and plaintiff was not thrown against any part of the car's interior. In October 1977, plaintiff was again injured in a chain-reaction accident involving four cars.

The United States did not seriously contest liability for the May collision, but contended that the more serious October accident caused most of the plaintiff's injuries. The magistrate found that plaintiff failed to prove that any injuries manifested after October 7, 1977 were causally related to the collision with the postal vehicle. For damages arising out of the May 7 accident, he determined that $7,500 represented fair and reasonable compensation.

On appeal, plaintiff contends that the magistrate's findings of fact were clearly erroneous and that the award was inadequate. The appeal, however, presents two preliminary issues touching on jurisdiction.

I

The first question is whether this court has been presented with an appealable order. Section 636(c)(3) of the Federal Magistrates Act, 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(3) (1976 ed., Supp. V), permits an appeal directly to this court from a judgment entered by a magistrate in a case tried by consent. Section 636(c)(4) allows an alternative procedure by which, at the time of reference to the magistrate, the parties may agree to take any appeal to a district judge. Thereafter, the court of appeals may review the case only upon its grant of a petition for leave to appeal. Id. § 636(c)(5).

When the parties consented to have this case tried by a magistrate, they signed a form prepared by the clerk for the District of New Jersey. In addition to the reference to the magistrate, the form contained a separate provision allowing the parties to agree that any appeal would be to a judge of the district court.*fn1 Although counsel for the parties signed both portions of the form, the appeal from the magistrate's judgment was taken directly to this court.

Under ordinary circumstances, a case appealed directly to this court, when the parties had agreed to initial review by a district judge, would be remanded for that disposition. In the matter at hand, however, counsel for both parties represent that they had not intended to appeal to the district judge and erroneously signed the consent to that procedure. Because the procedure is of recent origin and not yet well known to the bar, we will grant the parties' request to set aside the consent to appeal to the district judge. We caution, however, that in the future we will hold counsel to such agreements and our ruling on the point will not serve as precedent for similar leniency in subsequent cases.

II

The second preliminary matter is of more substance. The issue is whether section 636(c) violates Article III of the Constitution*fn2 by authorizing a magistrate, on consent of the parties, to conduct trials and enter judgments.*fn3 A panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that section 636(c) is unconstitutional. Pacemaker Diagnostic Clinic, Inc. v. Instromedix, Inc., 712 F.2d 1305 (9th Cir. 1983), rehearing en banc granted, 718 F.2d 971 (1983)). In reaching that conclusion, the panel relied on the Supreme Court's decision in Northern Pipeline Construction Co. v. Marathon Pipeline Co., 458 U.S. 50, 102 S. Ct. 2858, 73 L. Ed. 2d ...


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