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Fourth Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Habeas Petition Where District Court Failed to Review Magistrate’s Report De Novo After Characterizing Petitioner’s Objections as ‘Attempt to Reargue Case’

by Douglas Ankney

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed a District Court’s dismissal of Larone F. Elijah’s 28 U.S.C. § 2241 Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (“habeas petition”) where the District Court characterized Elijah’s objections to the magistrate’s report and recommendation (“R&R”) as an attempt to “reargue his case,” declined to review the R&R de novo, and then adopted the R&R after reviewing for clear error.

In July 2015, while Elijah was serving a five-year term of supervised release stemming from a 2007 drug-possession conviction, he was arrested for possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin in violation of his supervised release conditions. The U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina revoked his supervised release and imposed a 36-month revocation sentence after determining that Elijah’s 2007 conviction was a Class B felony under 18 U.S.C. § 3583(e)(3).

Elijah appealed the revocation sentence, arguing that the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 had demoted his 2007 offense from a Class B felony to a Class C felony. The Fourth Circuit dismissed the appeal as untimely.

After serving two years of the revocation sentence, Elijah pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute based on the facts underlying his July 2015 arrest, and he was sentenced to a consecutive term of 108 months’ imprisonment followed by three years of supervised release.

While Elijah was serving his second possession sentence (he had completed the revocation sentence), the First Step Act of 2018, Pub. L. No. 115-391, 132 Stat. 5194 (“FSA”), amended 18 U.S.C. § 3624 to increase from 47 days to 54 days per year the maximum amount of good conduct time (“GCT”) available to prisoners. The Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) credited an additional seven days of GCT to Elijah for each year of his revocation sentence and his second possession sentence towards his release date. Elijah filed a request with the BOP, seeking retroactive application of the FSA amendment to his first drug-possession sentence, which would give him an additional 63 days toward his release date. Elijah’s request was denied, and he filed his pro se habeas petition.

Elijah alleged (1) his supervised release constituted “official detention” and should be credited toward his release date, (2) the BOP erred by not retroactively applying the FSA to his first drug-possession sentence, and (3) the Supreme Court had invalidated 18 U.S.C. § 3583(e) in United States v. Haymond, 139 S. Ct. 2369 (2019).

In July 2021, a magistrate judge issued an R&R concluding that the habeas petition should be summarily dismissed for failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted. Elijah timely filed his objection, “again advancing his three claims in the same manner as before but developing his arguments with new case law and discussion.”

The District Court found that Elijah’s attempts to “reargue his case” meant his objection was “nonspecific.” Therefore, in lieu of reviewing the R&R de novo, the District Court applied clear error review, concluded that the magistrate did not clearly err in her analysis, and adopted the magistrate’s recommendation to dismiss the habeas petition. Elijah timely appealed, arguing, inter alia, that “because his objection clearly identified the grounds on which he disagreed with the magistrate’s R&R, the district court should have reviewed the grounds of his objection de novo.”

The Court observed the “Federal Magistrates Act (“FMA”) allows district courts to delegate pretrial matters to a magistrate judge, who then issues a recommendation [the R&R] as to how to resolve those matters.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A). If a party serves and files written objections to the R&R, a “judge of the court shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.” § 636(b)(1)(C). Because the authority of magistrate judges is narrowly limited by Article III of the U.S. Constitution, “the constitutionality of the FMA sits precariously on the requirement that ‘ultimate decision[s]’ be made solely by the district court, not the magistrate,’” the Court observed. United States v. George, 971 F.2d 1113 (4th Cir. 1992). Consequently, the judge’s de novo review may be foregone only when the parties do not object to the magistrate’s recommendation. Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Co., 416 F.3d 310 (4th Cir. 2005).

Where a party objects to the finding or recommendation on an issue with sufficient specificity so as to reasonably alert the District Court of the true ground for the objection, the District Court must review de novo. United States v. Midgette, 478 F.3d 616 (4th Cir. 2007). In Martin v. Duffy, 858 F.3d 239 (4th Cir. 2017), the court held that an objection that merely “restated all of [the] claims” was sufficiently specific because it “alerted the district court that [the litigant] believed the magistrate judge erred in recommending dismissal of those claims.” That is, there is no requirement that objections must be novel in order to be sufficiently specific, the Court stated. See id. Where the grounds for objection is clear, the Court stated that the District Court is required to consider them “or else run afoul of both § 636(b)(1) and Article III.”

Additionally, “pro se filings must be construed liberally, Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89 (2007), ‘so as to do substantial justice.’” Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 8(f). “A pro se complaint, however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.” Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976). Consequently, in reviewing pro se objections to a magistrate’s R&R, the District Court is required to review de novo “any articulated grounds to which the litigant appears to take issue,” explained the Court. See Martin.

The Court concluded that “Elijah’s objections satisfied – and exceeded – the sufficiency standard” based on the fact he raised his objection in three enumerated and detailed legal claims in which he challenged the magistrate’s R&R. The Court explained that the District Court erred in concluding Elijah failed to object with the necessary specificity to warrant de novo review by simply repeating his previous three arguments because his objection was sufficient to advise the District Court that he disagreed with the magistrate’s R&R. See Martin. In fact, the Court stated that Elijah satisfied the sufficiency standard even without the liberal construction afforded to pro se litigants.

Thus, the Court ruled that by adopting the R&R upon only clear error review, the District Court “improperly elevated the magistrate’s opinion and failed to satisfy its obligations under § 636(b) and Article III.”

Accordingly, the Court vacated the District Court’s judgment and remanded with instructions to apply de novo review. See: Elijah v. Dunbar, 66 F.4th 454 (4th Cir. 2023).  

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