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Second Circuit Holds Denial to Proceed Under Pseudonym by Magistrate Judge Is Immediately Appealable

n a question of first impression that implicated the Court’s jurisdiction, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held on February 6, 2020, that a magistrate judge’s order denying a prisoner’s request to file a motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 under a pseudonym or to seal the filings in order to protect his confidentiality was an immediately appealable order under the “collateral order doctrine.”

The question landed before the Court after John Pilcher filed a letter with his § 2255 motion asking to file under a pseudonym and to file the motion under seal to protect his identity. The magistrate judge appointed to hear his motion and make a recommendation to the district judge denied outright Pilcher’s request in an order, finding that his criminal conviction was already public knowledge and that his grounds for sealing the motion were not enough to overcome the right of the public to open records under the First Amendment to the Constitution. Pilcher appealed.

The first thing the Second Circuit addressed was whether it has jurisdiction to hear Pilcher’s appeal from a non-final order of the district court denying his motion to proceed anonymously. Typically, the Court of Appeals only has jurisdiction to hear “final decisions of the district court,” under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. But the “collateral order doctrine” allows an appeal from a non-final order if it: (1) conclusively decides the disputed question, (2) resolves an important issue completely separate from the merits of the case, and (3) would be effectively unreviewable on appeal from the final judgment in the case. United States v. Culbertson, 598 F.3d 40 (2d Cir. 2010).

The Court found that all three criteria were satisfied to allow Pilcher’s appeal under the collateral order doctrine because: (1) the magistrate judge’s order conclusively decided the issue, (2) the magistrate judge’s decision was completely separate from his § 2255 claims regarding his supervised release conditions, and (3) the magistrate judge’s ruling would be unreviewable on appeal from the final judgment later on.

Finding that Pilcher’s arguments lacked merit to allow him to file his motion anonymously, the Court affirmed the district court’s order denying his request.

The Court also took a moment to address the authority of the magistrate judge in entering such an order, when magistrates typically do not possess authority to enter dispositive orders in § 2255 cases. Pilcher had argued that the district court judge had “outsourced” the decision on his motion to proceed anonymously to the magistrate judge without his consent. But two provisions allow a magistrate judge to perform district judge functions in § 2255 cases, with the exception of dismissing or denying the entire case. Magistrates are, however, allowed to enter orders granting or denying non-dispositive issues, such as appointment of counsel and, as here, the ability to proceed anonymously. Rule 10 of the Rules Governing Section 2255 Cases; 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A).

The magistrate judge’s order dealt only with the manner in which Pilcher would proceed on his underlying claim and was not dispositive, the Court concluded. However, the Court did recognize that an exception may exist in cases where a magistrate’s ruling, while not dispositive, could have a “chilling effect” on the party’s efforts to pursue their claims, effectively making the order dispositive. The Court found that this was not the case here, though.

Another point the Court noted was how the appeal made it before the Court, i.e., coming from a magistrate judge’s order.

[Writer’s note: See United States v. Renfro, 620 F.2d 497 (5th Cir. 1980) (“The law is settled that appellate courts are without jurisdiction to hear appeals directly from federal magistrates.”). First, Pilcher had to “appeal” to the district court judge. The district judge then reviewed the magistrate judge’s order for “clear error” or to see if it was contrary to law. § 636(b)(1)(A). Once the district judge affirmed the magistrate judge’s order, only then could Pilcher take his appeal to the Second Circuit.

In the end, the Second Circuit concluded that, in this case, the magistrate judge’s order denying Pilcher’s request to seal his filings or to allow him to proceed anonymously did not meet the standards to allow such an exception to the policy of keeping court records open to the public.]

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United States v. Pilcher



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