Does a Magistrate Judge Have Authority to Decide a Motion for Spoliation Sanctions under Rule 37 or the Court’s Inherent Power? As with Rule 11, the Case Law Is Split

In re Estate of Jackson v. Cnty. of Suffolk, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 96355 (E.D.N.Y. July 15, 2014)):

Plaintiff the Estate of Willie Jackson ("plaintiff" or the "Estate") brings this action against numerous defendants associated with Suffolk County (the "County Defendants") based on an incident on April 2, 2011, between Willie Jackson ("decedent") and Suffolk County Police Department ("SCPD") officers, which ultimately led to decedent's death. Pending before the Court is plaintiff's timely motion, pursuant to Rule 72(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, appealing Magistrate Judge A. Kathleen Tomlinson's March 31, 2014 Order denying plaintiff's request for spoliation sanctions, including the entry of a default judgment (the "Spoliation Order," Docket No. 65). (Appeal, Docket No. 66.) For the following reasons, the Court adopts the thorough and well-reasoned Spoliation Order in its entirety and denies  [*2] plaintiff's motion for spoliation sanctions.***

II. Standard of Review

This Court may reverse a magistrate judge's order on a nondispositive pre-trial matter only if the order is "clearly erroneous or contrary to law." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A); Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(a); see Thomas E. Hoar, Inc. v. Sara Lee Corp., 900 F.2d 522, 525 (2d Cir. 1990) ("A magistrate . . . may issue orders regarding nondispositive pretrial matters. The district court reviews such orders  [*8] under the 'clearly erroneous or contrary to law' standard."). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Rule 72, de novo review is reserved for "those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made" involving dispositive matters--not to nondispositive pre-trial matters. See, e.g., Thomas E. Hoar, Inc., 900 F.2d at 525 (explaining standard for review of magistrate judge decisions); New York v. Mountain Tobacco Co., 953 F. Supp. 2d 385, 389-90 (E.D.N.Y. 2013) (same). Plaintiff urges this Court to review Magistrate Judge Tomlinson's decision de novo, while defendant argues that this Court should review the decision for clear error. A court may impose sanctions for spoliation under Rule 37 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure when a party spoliates evidence in violation of a court order, or under its inherent power to control litigation. See West v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 167 F.3d 776, 779 (2d Cir. 1999) ("Even without a discovery order, a district court may impose sanctions for spoliation, exercising its inherent power to control litigation.") In Kiobel v. Milson, 592 F.3d 78, 84-105 (2d Cir. 2010), the Second Circuit issued split concurring opinions on whether a magistrate judge has the authority to impose sanctions under Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Courts have expressed concern that the conflicting conclusions in those opinions also potentially could apply to other grounds for sanctions, including under Rule 37 or the Court's inherent power. See, e.g., Gelicity UK Ltd. v. Jell-E-Bath, Inc., No. 10 CV 5677 (ILG)(RLM), 2014 WL 1330938, at *1 n.1 (E.D.N.Y. April 1, 2014) (Report and Recommendation) ("Because the Second Circuit has not resolved the issue of a magistrate judge's authority to sanction under Rule 11, its inherent powers, or 28 U.S.C. § 1927, this Court, out of an abundance of caution, addresses [plaintiff's] motion in a report and recommendation."); Diversified Control, Inc. v. Corning Cable Sys., LLC, No. 05-CV-0277 (A)(M), 2010 WL 1371662, at *1 n.2 (W.D.N.Y. April 6, 2010) ("The discussion in Kiobel suggests that this uncertainty may now also extend to a Magistrate Judge's authority to impose non-dispositive sanctions under Rule 37."); see also In Re Kessler, No. 05 CV 6056(SJF)(AKT), 2009 WL 2603104, at *3-21 (E.D.N.Y. March 27, 2009) (issuing a Report and Recommendation  [*10] with respect to spoliation motion that invoked the court's inherent power).4

4   Courts in other circuits have also struggled with the issue of whether a magistrate judge has the inherent power to sanction, and the accompanying level of review that is required if it is authorized. Compare Apple Inc. v. Samsung Elecs. Corp., 888 F. Supp. 2d 976, 985-89 (N.D. Ca. 2012) (holding that magistrate judges have inherent power to sanction for spoliation, and decision to impose adverse jury instruction is not dispositive sanction subject to de novo review), with Redick v. White, 456 F. App'x 191, 193-94 (4th Cir. 2011) (unpublished per curiam) (holding that district court's review of magistrate judge's denial of motion for bad faith sanctions against non-party is subject to de novo review).

In an abundance of caution, the Court has treated the Spoliation Order as a Report and Recommendation and conducted a de novo review of the entire Spoliation Order. Having considered the issue de novo, the Court reaches the same conclusion as Magistrate Judge Tomlinson for the reasons discussed in her well-reasoned and thorough Spoliation Order. As discussed in detail below, the Court finds plaintiff's arguments  [*11] and objections to be without merit.

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