In the course of the discovery phase of federal court litigation, parties oftentimes find themselves in a heated discovery dispute. One party seeks production of information or entry upon land for inspection of property, while the responding party objects to the requested discovery, either partially or in its entirety. In these circumstances, the requesting party may move the court to compel the requested discovery, pursuant to Rule 37 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Depending on the local rules for the district court where the action is pending, motions to compel are typically referred to the magistrate judge allotted to the case.
What happens if a party is displeased with the magistrate judge’s discovery order? In such event, a party may appeal the magistrate’s order to the district judge assigned to the case, pursuant to Rule 72 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Inasmuch as a motion to compel is a non-dispositive pretrial motion, subsection (a) of Rule 72 applies. Rule 72(a) states:
When a pretrial matter not dispositive of a party’s claim or defense is referred to a magistrate judge to hear and decide, the magistrate judge must promptly conduct the required proceedings and, when appropriate, issue a written order stating the decision. A party may serve and file objections to the order within 14 days after being served with a copy. A party may not assign as error a defect in the order not timely objected to. The district judge in the case must consider timely objections and modify or set aside any part of the order that is clearly erroneous or is contrary to law.
“A finding is ‘clearly erroneous’ when although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” United States v. U.S. Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 395 (1948). A legal conclusion is contrary to law “when the magistrate fails to apply or misapplies relevant statutes, case law, or rules of procedure.” Ambrose-Frazier v. Herzing Inc., No. 15-1324, 2016 WL 890406, at *2 (E.D. La. 3/9/2016). For issues that are committed to a magistrate judge’s discretion, such as the resolution of discovery disputes, the decision will be reversed only for an abuse of discretion.
On appeal, the losing party to a discovery motion may attempt to offer new evidence, or new arguments based on new evidence, for the district court judge to consider on the appeal. However, the district court is typically not permitted to consider any such new evidence on appeals of non-dispositive matters, such as discovery motions. Under Rule 72(a), “the district court is not permitted to receive further evidence; it is bound by the clearly erroneous rule in reviewing questions of fact.” Haines v. Liggett Grp. Inc., 975 F.2d 81, 91 (3rd Cir. 1992).
Accordingly, attorneys must exercise due diligence and gather all necessary evidence when presenting and/or opposing discovery motions. If a magistrate does not rule in your favor, you will lose your opportunity to bolster any argument with additional evidence, should an appeal be made.