Jurisdiction and appeals are both complicated subjects that law students spend an entire year studying in law school. The intricacies of jurisdiction and the appeals process are also learned from years of practice in the legal field. One victim discovered this notion out the hard way when he brought suit after a medical incident in Alexandria, Louisiana. Some general background information is helpful before the case is discussed.
In order for a court to hear a case, that court must have jurisdiction over it. Jurisdiction is defined as the authority to hear a case and it is granted by the United State Constitution or by statute. Jurisdiction needs to be determined at each level as it goes through the either the federal or state court system.
The District Court hears most federal claims first because it is usually considered the lowest federal court. After a case goes through the lower court then the defendant typically has the right to appeal if the judgment that was rendered at the District Court was not favorable to his case. The Court of Appeals then needs to determine whether it has jurisdiction over that particular appeal.
Cases can only be appealed after the court has issued a final judgment on the case. If there is not a final judgment, then the case cannot be appealed and must wait in the lower court until a final decision has been made. A few procedural exceptions to this general rule exist, but they are not used often.
District Court Judges can use Magistrate Judges who are lower judges that help with either small cases or specific aspects of a larger case. The District Court Judge will appoint Magistrate Judges for a period of eight years to help with their cases. Magistrate Judges, while helpful to District Court judges, cannot actually decide a case unless that judge acquires consent from both parties to do so. Therefore, without permission from the parties, a Magistrate Judge cannot issue a final decision that would qualify for the appeals process.
The recent Louisiana case mentioned previously had to address all of these matters on appeal. The Western District of Louisiana reminded parties that an issue could only be appealed if it is final. The case involved an individual who had been the victim of a colonoscopy that went horribly wrong. The victim faced an emergency surgery the day after his colonoscopy and had to stay in the hospital over eight months after his initial visit.
The victim brought suit a little over three years later, but his counsel was asked to be removed from the case and the court granted this request. The victim then asked the District Court Judge to appoint a counsel to him; a request that the District Court Judge sent to the Magistrate Judge to consider. The Magistrate Judge then denied his request and gave the victim time to find his own replacement counsel. The victim was unable to do so even after a requested extension of time. He again asked the District Court Judge to appoint counsel and the District Court Judge again referred the case to the Magistrate Judge. Requests for reconsideration also followed. Finally, the Magistrate Judge dismissed the suit for “failure to comply with the court’s orders and for failure to prosecute.” The victim then appealed following the dismissal.
The Court of Appeals stated that the Magistrate Judge could not dismiss the complaint because the victim did not consent to have the case heard by the Magistrate Judge. Therefore, the Court of Appeals could not consider the dismissal final. The court also pointed out that the Magistrate Judge also did not write up a separate document for the dismissal; it was only printed in the docket, which is kept with the Court House records. The dismissal should be its own freestanding document and not just a line in the record book. The Court of Appeals dismissed Barber’s appeal for lack of jurisdiction.
Jurisdiction and the appeals process is very complicated. The victim in that case was unaware that he could not appeal because the case was not final. If he would have had competent legal counsel such as from the attorneys at Berniard Law Firm, his case may not have been dismissed.
Call the Berniard Law Firm Toll Free at 1-866-574-8005 and we will be happy to answer and all of your legal questions.