A federal court of appeals does not have jurisdiction over an appeal from a magistrate judge’s order of dismissal unless the parties have clearly and unambiguously consented to proceed before the magistrate judge.
In Barber v. Shinseki, the plaintiff brought a healthcare liability claim. After the plaintiff’s counsel withdrew, he asked the district court to appoint new counsel for him. The district court referred the issue to a magistrate judge, who subsequently denied the request and gave the plaintiff additional time to locate substitute counsel. When the plaintiff did not find new counsel, the magistrate judge entered an electronic order dismissing for failure to prosecute. The plaintiff appealed.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a magistrate judge’s order is not final unless the parties have consented to proceed before the magistrate. Since there was no evidence of that consent and since there was no district court order dismissing, the court of appeals dismissed the appeal due to the lack of a final judgment. The court also noted that the district court "has an obligation to issue a written, paper order when it disposes of a case." The magistrate judge’s electronic order violated Federal Rule 58’s requirement that "every judgment shall be set forth on a separate document." The court’s opinion may be found here.