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How Not to Miss Your Appeal from the Magistrate's Decision

An appeal can be a procedural maze—and if you make the wrong turn, occasionally there is no way out. In one case, the appellant lost her way in confusion over the magistrate rules.

This case out of the Colorado Court of Appeals reminds us how important it is to file an appeal from a magistrate’s ruling in the right court. Timely filing a notice of appeal is both mandatory and jurisdictional. If your practice involves appeals from proceedings before a magistrate, you must read In re Heotis, 2016 COA 6.

The case itself involved a bit of back and forth through the different courts. Some background is helpful. A teacher pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor under a deferred judgment; but several years later the court allowed her to withdraw her guilty plea and dismissed the case. Nevertheless, because of the teacher’s involvement in the criminal case, the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) revoked her teaching license. The teacher filed a petition to seal the records in the criminal case, and CDE opposed her request.

A magistrate heard the teacher’s petition, but ruled against her. The teacher appealed to the district court, which adopted the magistrate’s order, still ruling against the teacher. Next, the teacher appealed to the Court of Appeals, which remanded the case back to the district court “with directions to remand to the magistrate.” This gave the teacher another chance. In that first review on appeal, the division of the COA stated that after the magistrate had reconsidered the order “either party may petition for review by the district court, and file an appeal from the district court’s order, as appropriate.”

Unfortunately for the teacher, the magistrate issued an order on remand, again denying the teacher’s request to seal the records. The teacher appealed to the district court, which also ultimately denied her request. She then appealed again to the Court of Appeals.

Rather than getting into the merits of why the records should or should not be sealed, the Court of Appeals disposed of the case by ruling that the teacher’s appeal was untimely and that the court was without jurisdiction to hear the case. Why did it do this? Ultimately, the case turned on the interaction between the Colorado Rules for Magistrates and the Colorado Appellate Rules.

The Court reviewed these rules, and noted that “[t]hese rules distinguish between cases that a magistrate can hear only with the consent of the parties and cases that a magistrate can hear without the parties’ consent.” ¶ 10. In this particular case, the parties had been informed that they would be “deemed” to have consented to the magistrate’s authority to hear the teacher’s petition unless they objected in writing with 14 days. No party objected. So tacitly, they had consented to the magistrate’s authority. Where a civil function is overseen by a magistrate by consent, appeal is not to the district court, but directly to the Court of Appeals.

The fact that the teacher had first appealed to the district court was not necessarily problematic. What mattered was the fact that by doing so, she had missed the time window within which she was to file her appeal. Because of the passage of time, her appeal was filed outside the time limits of the appellate rules and was deemed untimely.

The teacher argued that she should be permitted to appeal because of the “unique circumstances doctrine.” “[T]his doctrine extends jurisdiction to cases in which a party has missed a jurisdictional filing deadline, but the party has ‘relied and acted upon an erroneous or misleading statement or ruling by a trial court regarding the time for filing post-trial motions.’” ¶ 29. Here, it was unclear whether the magistrate had properly informed the parties where appeal was to be had, and the prior opinion from the Court of Appeals had suggested that appeal to the district court was potentially proper. Despite the fact that the circumstances suggested the doctrine might apply, the division declined to extend the filing deadline. Though the division cited several reasons for its conclusion, the fact that the Colorado Appellate Rules expressly foreclose an extension of time in these types of cases seemed most persuasive to the court. In light of its decision, the Court dismissed the appeal.

This was a very unfortunate result for the teacher, but is an excellent reminder for the rest of us of the importance of reading the rules and carefully tracking the time for filing an appeal.

  • Be sure of whether you have consented to magistrate jurisdiction. In Colorado, a party may have deemed to have consented to a magistrate’s performing a function in the civil case simply by inaction. If a magistrate informs the parties that they will have consented to jurisdiction unless they object, the action is there by consent. You can object or not, but do not assume that simply because you did not affirmatively agree to consent, you are not under consent jurisdiction. Carefully track this aspect of your case.
  • It is YOUR responsibility. This case demonstrates how the appellate court will hold parties (and their lawyers) to their independent responsibility to figure out which court is the correct court to hear an appeal of a magistrate’s ruling. While courts can give guidance on this, the entire doctrine of unique circumstances has developed around the fact that even courts steer parties in the wrong direction. While some appellate courts will take this into consideration, this case makes clear that some court will not. Relying on court guidance is not necessarily an excuse if the court is ultimately mistaken about the procedure. Independently confirm to which court you should appeal. If you are uncertain, you can always appeal to both in an abundance of caution and let the court make the determination.
  • Remember that not all cases are governed by C.A.R. 4. This case was a typical civil appeal governed by C.A.R. 4, which the court noted. Under C.A.R. 4, Colorado Appellate Rule 26 expressly states that the time for filing an appeal may not be extended. However, not all cases are governed by C.A.R. 4. For cases such as dependency and neglect, for example, which is governed by C.A.R. 3.4, courts may have more leeway in extending the time for filing under these circumstances because doing so is not foreclosed by the rules.

Featured Image: "Maze 1" from morgueFile.

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