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Fourth Circuit: Good Cause Not Required to Withdraw Consent to Magistrate Judge’s Jurisdiction Prior to Other Parties Consenting

by Harold Hempstead

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that a party who consents to the jurisdiction of a magistrate judge and then requests to withdraw that consent prior to the other party consenting is not required to show good cause.

Malcom Muhammad sued multiple prison staff and guards for violations of his constitutional rights in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. Under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), a District Court may refer an entire case to a magistrate judge if all the parties to the case consent. The clerk of the court sent four successive notices to Muhammad and the defendants notifying them of their right to consent to a magistrate judge’s jurisdiction over the entire case in the District Court (“Notices”). The standard form used in the Western District of Virginia states that signed consent must be returned to the clerk’s office “within 15 days from the date of this Notice.”

Muhammad timely signed the first two Notices as they were received and returned them to the clerk, thereby consenting to the jurisdiction of the magistrate judge. The defendants did not respond to the first three Notices, and almost nine months after receiving the fourth Notice, they untimely signed it and returned it to the clerk. After Muhammad received the third and fourth Notices, which he did not return, he filed a motion and another pleading to withdraw his prior consent.

The District Court denied Muhammad’s motion to withdraw his consent, citing a case from the Fifth Circuit—Carter v. Sea Land Servs., Inc., 816 F.2d 1018 (5th Cir. 1987)—to support its ruling that Muhammad did not have an absolute right to withdraw his prior consent and the underlying rule that in order to obtain a withdrawal he would have had to show good cause, which, according to the court, he failed to do.

After Magistrate Judge Sargent adopted her won Report & Recommendation granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on all of Muhammad’s claims, he filed an appeal on the denial of his motion to withdraw his consent and the magistrate judge’s entry of a judgment on his claims.

On appeal, the Court framed the issue before it as follows: “whether a party, who previously consented to a referral to a magistrate judge, must show good cause to withdraw that consent when the other parties have not yet consented to the referral.”

The Court explained that nowhere in § 636 does it address a party’s withdrawal of consent before a case is transferred to a magistrate judge, nor does it impose a requirement that good cause be shown before a party can withdraw their consent, when the other parties have not also consented. Consequently, the Court stated that the statute itself doesn’t impose a good cause standard, and it declined to create a judicially created requirement when Congress declined to do so.

Since this was a case of first impression in the Fourth Circuit, the Court cited cases from sister circuits that have addressed the issue of withdrawal of consent. In Gilmore v. Lockard, 936 F.3d 857 (2019), the Ninth Circuit rejected the argument that there’s a good cause requirement for withdrawal prior to all parties consenting to jurisdiction under a magistrate judge. The plaintiff in the case consented to the jurisdiction of a magistrate judge, but the defendants did not initially. Following the issuance of an adverse ruling by the magistrate judge, the plaintiff moved to withdraw his consent, which the magistrate judge denied because the plaintiff didn’t show good cause. The Ninth Circuit rejected the notion that the good cause standard applies in this situation where withdraw of consent is sought prior to all parties granting consent.

The Court then discussed Carter, stating that the District Court and defendants’ reliance on Carter to support their position that there’s a good cause requirement with respect to the current situation is misplaced. Unlike in the present case, all the parties in Carter consented to the jurisdiction of a magistrate judge, and the District Court transferred the case. Subsequently, a party moved to withdraw its consent. This situation is expressly governed by § 636(c)(4), which requires a showing of good cause.

The Court explained that Carter is distinguishable from the present case because not all the parties had consented nor had the District Court transferred the case prior to Muhammad’s motion to withdraw consent. Unlike in Carter, the good cause requirement in § 636(c)(4) had not been triggered with respect to Muhammad’s motion. Thus, the Court held that Muhammad didn’t need to show good cause and that the District Court erred in requiring him to do so in order to withdraw his consent.

Accordingly, the Court vacated the District Court’s order denying Muhammad’s motion, vacated the magistrate judge’s order entering final judgment, and remanded the case to the District Court for proceedings consistent with this opinion. See: Muhammad v. Fleming, 29 F.4th 161 (4th Cir. 2022). 

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Related legal case

Muhammad v. Fleming



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