Fifth Circuit Vacates Referral to Special Master - Abuse by Judges Now Epidemic

The use of "Special Masters" has become a common abuse for judges to both get rid of their work and award other high paying patronage work. In fact these "wink, wink" deals often bleed down estates when completely unnecessary with extra legal fees allowing 3 lawyers to have meetings without any client oversight to rack up legal fees.

Sierra Club v. Clifford, 257 F.3d 444 (5th Cir. 2001).

Yoshiyuki Takamatsu, 3L

In July, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit vacated a district court’s decision to refer an environmental lawsuit to a special master. The Sierra Club and Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Inc. (Sierra Club) brought an action challenging Louisiana’s and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) failure to comply with the Clean Water Act. The Act imposes on the EPA a duty to identify and establish total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) of pollutants for impaired waters. Before trial, the District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana appointed a special master pursuant to Rule 53 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

A court may appoint a special master to assist it in specific judicial duties, such as difficult computation of damages or when some “exceptional condition” requires the reference. (See page 8 for details on special masters.) The district court cited its congested docket and unfamiliarity with the issues presented as necessitating the referral to the master. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit held that the decisions to refer were improper and vacated the final judgment, remanding the case for further proceedings. 

Appointment of Special Master and La Buy
A district court may appoint a special master to aid it in the performance of specific judicial duties, but a special master may not displace the court.3 Under Rule 53(b), reference to a special master shall be the exception and not the rule and shall be made only upon a showing that some exceptional condition requires it.