Despite Pandemic, New Federal Lawsuits Still Flowing

By Bill Donahue
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Law360 (April 7, 2020, 1:15 PM EDT) -- The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has not yet significantly dampened the number of new lawsuits being filed in federal courts, according to a study by Lex Machina, but courts are beginning to issue fewer rulings than usual.

The report, released by Lex Machina on Tuesday, aimed to track the impact of the pandemic on litigation activity across the entire federal court system, comparing the volume of new cases and case activity in March 2020 versus March 2019 and March 2018.

Although the pandemic has ground cities and companies to a halt, new cases are still flowing. Other than a few multidistrict litigations with unusual outlier figures, the numbers appear to show little change in the filing of new cases during the first few weeks of the outbreak.

"Case filings have not yet been significantly impacted year-over-year," Lex Machina wrote in a blog post announcing the findings. "This suggests that litigants are moving forward with planned litigation."

In certain practice areas, new lawsuits are down. The number of new bankruptcy, consumer protection, tax and trademark cases all dropped by more than 10% from last year. Copyright lawsuits plummeted by more than 40%.

In others areas of the law, the numbers were up. Employment, insurance, patent, product liability and securities all saw increases from 2019.

But what has been impacted by the outbreak, the report suggests, is the ability of the federal court system to process and dispose of the cases that come before them. That's unsurprising, given widespread closures and postponements in courts around the the country.

Case terminations — either through a settlement or a final ruling — are down across the board. In March 2018, 1,853 employment lawsuits were terminated. A year later, 1,910 cases were terminated, and in 2020, the number dropped to 1,620.

That kind of decline is mirrored in a number of other practice areas, as well as in other metrics of case activity, like rulings on summary judgment motions.

"Case activity is down. Terminations and findings are lower year-over-year," Lex Machina wrote. "This suggests that, while litigants are moving forward with filing, courtrooms have been impacted in their ability to handle normal litigation loads."

In a way, the fact that cases are not being dropped en masse echoes the continued filing of new cases, indicating that litigants are pushing forward with their cases despite the strain of the pandemic.

"While there may be a concern that courts are increasingly closing cases or parties are settling in response to the current conditions, this does not appear to be true," Lex Machina wrote.

Law360 is owned by LexisNexis Legal & Professional, a RELX Group company, which owns Lex Machina.

--Editing by Gemma Horowitz.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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