As part of our mission to bring openness and transparency to the law, Lex Machina is exploring how courts are affected by the social changes due to COVID-19. Our work requires us to review what is going on in federal district court every day, and we’d like to share our findings publicly. So, do we see the impact in the data? In terms of the effects of COVID-19 on litigation, it may still be too early to see significant changes in litigation activity, and there’s a lot we don’t yet know about how COVID-19 will eventually impact litigation. Here’s what we do know so far.
Summary Of Findings And Possible Explanations
Federal district courts are changing their operating procedures such as using remote communication and moving to essential personnel only, but are not closing completely. There is still daily court activity. In order to gain a better understanding, we compared court activity for four full weeks during March 2018, 2019, and 2020. In order to include 20 business days each year, the specific dates are March 4 to March 31, 2018; March 3 to March 30, 2019; and March 1 to March 28, 2020.
Here is a brief summary of our findings so far:
- Case filings have not yet been significantly impacted year-over-year. This suggests that litigants are moving forward with planned litigation.
- Case activity is down. Terminations and findings are lower year-over-year. In particular, findings at trial are down 41% from 2019. This suggests that, while litigants are moving forward with filing, courtrooms have been impacted in their ability to handle normal litigation loads.
- COVID-19 is showing up in court records mainly due to general orders regarding procedural changes. The social changes due to the virus have also affected individual cases as courts changed their operating procedures.
The table below shows the number of cases filed during four full weeks of March 2018, 2019, and 2020. Looking at all civil federal court litigation, cases have increased due to filings in two massive product liability multidistrict litigation cases about military earplugs and PFAS chemicals.
Lex Machina works to compare apples to apples in litigation, so looking at case filings by practice area better illustrates what is going on. Case filings in employment, insurance, patent, product liability, and securities increased from 2019. Otherwise, case filings have decreased, but not significantly. Cases continue to be filed through the online Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system. There will likely be a lag in filings that normally take place in person at the courthouse, such as pro se filings. Many filings get backdated in PACER, so practitioners will want to watch out for those documents.
Case Filings By Practice Area
|Practice Area||March 2018||March 2019||% Change||March 2020||% Change|
|All Other PACER Civil Litigation||6,413||7,368||+15%||6,089||-17%|
*A large number of product liability cases were filed in 2020 as part of ongoing multidistrict litigation.
Similar to above, the table below includes the number of cases that terminated during the four full weeks of March 2018, 2019, and 2020. 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. In most practice areas, fewer cases terminated in March 2020 than previous years. This may be the result of a slowdown in all types of court activity.
Terminated Cases By Practice Area
|Practice Area||March 2018||March 2019||% Change||March 2020||% Change|
|All Other PACER Civil Litigation||6,009||6,925||+15%||6,890||-1%|
*A large number of product liability cases terminated in 2020 as part of ongoing multidistrict litigation.
Internally, Lex Machina tracks important court orders as they become available and analyzes them to annotate data points such as findings, damages, and remedies. Anecdotally, our team is not seeing the volume of decisions and documents it normally does. However, activity has not completely stopped.
The following table shows the number of cases with a finding in the listed judgment event occurring within the relevant time periods. These are specifically the findings that Lex Machina tracks based on our practice areas.
The largest decrease was in cases with findings at trial, as 54 cases had findings at trial in March 2020 compared to 91 cases in March 2019. In the first four weeks of March 2020, 504 cases had summary judgment findings and 158 cases had findings pursuant to judgments on the pleadings. Whereas, during the first four weeks of March 2019, 711 cases had summary judgment findings and 250 cases had findings pursuant to judgments on the pleadings. Between 2019 and 2020, findings at every judgment event have dropped.
Because this data is so new, the numbers for 2020 are likely to increase. The 2020 numbers will include findings from documents that have not yet shown up in PACER. For example, documents may be unsealed that later reveal a court finding. However, this is a significant drop that shows a critical slowdown without completely stopping activity altogether.
Cases With Findings By Event
|Judgment Event||March 2018||March 2019||% Change||March 2020||% Change|
|Judgment as a Matter of Law||5||6||+20%||4||-33%|
|Judgment on the Pleadings||271||250||-8%||158||-37%|
We used keyword searching to gain more information about how the courts are reacting to the recent societal changes. Over 16,000 federal district court cases appear using the search string “covid OR coronavirus OR pandemic.” Most of these appeared due to orders regarding new court rules. For example, in the Northern District of Illinois, the court issued a general order regarding procedural issues such as deadlines and the suspension of public gatherings. Judges, such as Judge Barber in the Middle District of Florida, are issuing general procedural orders in a significant number of their cases. Additionally, cases have individual procedural issues. Injunctions have been denied, juries sent home, and a patent trial was declared a mistrial due to the virus. Individual anomalies in litigation activity are steadily occurring, and we expect to gain more big picture information on the courts’ activity in the coming weeks.
Tracking Major Events
While it’s clear that we’ve never seen a worldwide event quite like this before, we’ve previously seen other major events create litigation activity. For example, there were increases in Contracts and Bankruptcy filings in the wake of the 2008 recession. The Hurricane Related case tag in our Insurance practice area and the Deepwater Horizon case tag in our Environmental practice area both track spikes in litigation due to major events. Lex Machina will look to create similar case tags to track litigation activity caused by COVID-19.
Our team is keeping a close eye on developments and incoming data, looking for any changes and emerging trends. We continue to update Lex Machina’s platform daily and think about ways to keep practitioners informed about the state of litigation. We plan to continue tracking cases filed under these unusual circumstances and aim to compare timing, findings, resolutions, and other metrics to previous years. Stay tuned for an update in the next few weeks.
By Rachel Bailey, Data Relations Manager, Lex Machina – a LexisNexis Company
This data was gathered from the Lex Machina platform on April 1, 2020. The Lex Machina platform updates daily and therefore any numbers in this report will change as new cases get added to PACER with new information. This report is meant to provide trends and general research information as of the date of publication.