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Hill v. Jenkins

decided: August 6, 1979.

LEE W. HILL, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
LEO JENKINS, ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division. No. S 75-0179 -- Allen Sharp, Judge.

Before Swygert, Sprecher and Bauer, Circuit Judges.

Author: Bauer

Plaintiff-appellant Lee W. Hill appeals from the order of the district court granting judgment in favor of defendants-appellees on his Pro se complaint brought under 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983 for an alleged violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. First, appellant challenges the adjudicatory procedure utilized by the district court, in which this action was referred to a United States Magistrate for purposes of conducting an evidentiary hearing. Second, the appellant challenges the adverse decision of the district court on the merits of his Section 1983 claims. Without reaching the merits of the appellant's Section 1983 claims, we reverse the order of the district court on procedural grounds, and remand the cause to the district court for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

I

Appellant is and, at all times relevant to this action, has been an inmate at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Indiana. After unsuccessfully pursuing his claim through prison administrative channels, he filed a Pro se complaint on October 17, 1975, alleging that the conduct of prison personnel during the course of a shakedown at the prison on February 6, 1975 resulted in certain items of personal property being removed from his prison locker and not returned in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Appellant demanded a jury trial and sought damages as well as injunctive and declaratory relief against the Commissioner of the Indiana Department of Corrections, the Warden, the Assistant Warden, and two correctional officers assigned to the prison at the time of the shakedown.

On August 10, 1977, the district judge entered an order setting the case for an evidentiary hearing to be held at the prison on December 27, 1977 before the judge or a duly appointed United States Magistrate. The district court subsequently denied the appellant's request for appointment of counsel, but permitted him to proceed with his Pro se complaint In forma pauperis. The hearing was held before United States Magistrate Wilbur Glendenning, without a jury, on December 27, 1977, at which the appellant testified, called witnesses, cross-examined the appellees' witnesses, and introduced evidence supportive of the allegations raised in his complaint. At the conclusion of the hearing, the magistrate requested the parties to submit their proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law to him by January 16, 1978.

On January 2, 1978, the appellant sent a letter to the district judge, in which he apprised the judge of his Pro se status and requested information and assistance concerning the material he was required to submit to the magistrate. The record is silent as to the response of the district judge to this request, and apparently the appellant did not submit any proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law to the magistrate. The appellees, however, did submit their proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law on January 16, 1978, although these documents were filed with the district court rather than with the magistrate. Moreover, the record does not reveal any filing by the magistrate with the district court of a report containing his proposed findings and recommendations for the disposition of the case.

On January 28, 1978, the district court adopted Verbatim the findings of fact and conclusions of law submitted by the appellees, and entered an order granting judgment in favor of the appellees, from which the appellant appeals to this Court.

II

First, appellant challenges the adjudicatory procedure utilized by the district court, in which this case was referred to a United States Magistrate for purposes of conducting an evidentiary hearing on his Pro se complaint. The appellant contends that a reference to a magistrate for purposes of conducting a civil trial is not sanctioned by article III of the Constitution, the Magistrates Act, or any local court rule.

As a threshold matter, we conclude that the evidentiary hearing conducted by the magistrate in this case constituted a civil trial for all intents and purposes. Although this conclusion is assumed by the appellant in his arguments before this Court, the procedural setting governing this case persuades us that the hearing is more properly characterized as a trial. The appellant demanded a jury trial on the issues raised in his complaint, and the district court Sua sponte referred the case to a magistrate for an evidentiary hearing which resulted in a case-dispositive trial on the merits. The hearing itself, albeit informal in view of the appellant's Pro se status and the fact that it was held in a prison setting, contained the fundamental indicia of a civil trial. Moreover, the hearing presumably established the predicate for the findings of fact and conclusions of law that were submitted by the appellees to the district court. Since neither the appellant nor the magistrate filed any findings or recommendations, and the district court adopted Verbatim the findings and conclusions of the appellees and entered judgment accordingly, the hearing resulted in a trial on the merits of the appellant's complaint.

Addressing the appellant's first argument challenging the adjudicatory procedure utilized in this case, we conclude that references to a United States Magistrate for purposes of conducting civil trials are constitutionally and statutorily permissible. Muhich v. Allen, 603 F.2d 1247 at 1252 (7th Cir. 1979); See DeCosta v. Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc., 520 F.2d 499 (1st Cir. 1975). In Muhich v. Allen, supra, this Court set forth the constitutional and statutory requirements governing such references:

"(W)e hold that, pursuant to an order of the district court, a consensual reference to a United States Magistrate for purposes of conducting a civil trial is proper, where the district court reviews De novo the proceedings held before the magistrate, the findings and recommendations of the magistrate filed with the court, and the objections, if any, of the parties filed thereto, and where the district court directs ...


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