The COVID-19 pandemic halted non-essential social and economic activities including the day-to-day operation of courthouses. During the shutdown, courts adopted special guidelines for providing essential legal services (e.g., bond hearings, temporary restraining orders). Some courts encouraged the use of electronic filings while others emphasized physical dropboxes. Lex Machina surveyed its current state civil trial court modules to examine how the pandemic shutdown impacted new case filings in state courts, which handle a tremendous volume and breadth of matters.

Our survey of new case filings in nine state courts during April and May 2020 revealed the following observations:

  1. Case filings in state courts were significantly reduced during the shutdown. For the nine state courts that Lex Machina reviewed, total case filings in April 2020 were down 53% compared to April 2019, and filings in May 2020 were down 49% compared to May 2019.
  2. Case filings for limited jurisdiction cases were more impacted than general/unlimited jurisdiction cases in the California and Texas courts that Lex Machina reviewed, suggesting that corporate litigation plaintiffs were less affected in pursuing litigation than individuals.
  3. Courts that permitted only essential civil cases to be filed during the pandemic shutdown saw a surge in new filings after courthouses reopened in May. For example, Sacramento saw a 12% increase in General Jurisdiction cases filed in May 2020 when compared to May 2019, after seeing a 93% decrease in such cases in April 2020 when compared to April 2019.
  4. Case filings during April and May 2020 increased for both Corporation and Commercial Law in the Delaware Court of Chancery (DCC) when compared year-over-year with 2019, which indicates that COVID-19 related cases are in fact driving an increase in overall litigation in DCC.

Methodology

In each of the nine state courts that we reviewed, Lex Machina has the case information for all civil cases filed as of January 1st, 2016 through present. We do not have information about criminal, family, or small claims cases.

The court-specific case classifications that Lex Machina uses (e.g., the Case Type “Torts” for Clark County District Court or the Field of Law “Corporation Law” for Delaware Court of Chancery) are derived from data that the respective court provides. The court-specific case tags that Lex Machina uses are also based on that court’s classification (e.g., the Case Tags “General Jurisdiction” and “Limited Jurisdiction” for each of Los Angeles County Superior Court, Sacramento County Superior Court, and San Bernardino County Superior Court).

Surveying Total New Case Filings in State Courts by Month

The chart below shows the number of new case filings per month from January 2018 through May 2020 for each of the nine state court modules that Lex Machina reviewed. The pandemic shutdown resulted in a reduced number of total new civil trial cases across the nine state courts. There was a 53% decrease in total case filings in April 2020 compared to April 2019 and a 49% decrease in May 2020 compared to May 2019.

Eight of the nine state courts saw a decrease in April 2020 filings compared to 2019 (with a range of 27% to 97% fewer cases) and a decrease in May 2020 filings compared to 2019 (with a range of 16% to 67% fewer cases).

One state court—the Delaware Court of Chancery—saw an increase in case filings in 2020 compared to 2019 for both April (4% more cases) and May (15% more cases). This increase is bolstered by new Commercial Law and Corporate Law case filings (more below).

Total New Case Filings Across Nine State Courts by Month

Year-Over-Year Comparison of New Case Filings for Nine State Courts

April 2018 April 2019 % Change April 2020 % Change May 2018 May 2019 % Change May 2020 % Change
Delaware Court of Chancery 87 76 -13% 79 4% 74 86 16% 99 15%
Harris County District Court 3,516 3,594 2% 2,607 -27% 3,564 3,606 1% 2,582 -28%
Harris County Court 1,523 1,926 26% 622 -68% 1,524 2,281 50% 870 -62%
Fort Bend County District Court 343 463 35% 228 -51% 365 461 26% 219 -52%
Fort Bend County Court 172 283 65% 63 -78% 143 257 80% 84 -67%
Clark County District Court 1,646 1,825 11% 1,301 -29% 1,555 1,921 24% 1,323 -31%
San Bernardino County Superior Court 2,982 3,677 23% 100 -97% 2,985 2,986 0% 1,056 -65%
Sacramento County Superior Court 2,058 1,954 -5% 54 -97% 1,891 2,118 12% 1,781 -16%
Los Angeles County Superior Court 14,016 13,736 -2% 7,869 -43% 14,297 15,337 7% 6,730 -56%
All States Combined 26,343 27,534 5% 12,923 -53% 26,398 29,053 10% 14,744 -49%

 

Surveying New Case Filings – Los Angeles

In California superior courts, civil trial cases may be filed as either general or limited jurisdiction. General Jurisdiction cases may have an unlimited amount in dispute, whereas Limited Jurisdiction cases may have an amount in dispute that is no more than $25,000.

Los Angeles County Superior Court saw a slight drop in General Jurisdiction case filings in April 2020 (9% fewer cases compared to April 2019), a trend that continued in May 2020 (15% fewer cases compared to May 2019). This court, in contrast, had a significant decrease in Limited Jurisdiction case filings in April 2020 (63% fewer cases compared to April 2019), and the decrease continued in May 2020 (77% fewer cases compared to May 2019). The driving force behind this decrease was collections cases – in April 2019, 7,854 collections cases were filed compared to only 2,365 filed in April 2020.

The above decreases in both General and Limited Jurisdiction case filings were likely mitigated by the implementation of mandatory e-filing by the Los Angeles County Superior Court in 2019. This effect is reflected in the data, which show that case filings in the Los Angeles County Superior Court were not as affected by COVID-19 as case filings in courts without e-filing or with limited e-filing options (such as San Bernardino or Sacramento County Superior Courts).

New Case Filings by Month – Los Angeles

Year-Over-Year Comparison of New Case Filings – Los Angeles

Los Angeles County Superior Court

April 2018 April 2019 % Change April 2020 % Change May 2018 May 2019 % Change May 2020 % Change
General Jurisdiction 5,734 5,205 -9% 4,746 -9% 5,613 5,227 -7% 4,435 -15%
Limited Jurisdiction 8,282 8,531 3% 3,123 -63% 8,684 10,110 16% 2,293 -77%

 

Surveying New Case Filings – Sacramento

Sacramento County Superior Court was closed for non-essential new case filings from March 19 – May 5, 2020. New cases filings in April 2020 for General Jurisdiction cases were very minimal (93% fewer cases in 2020 than in 2019) and completely halted for Limited Jurisdiction (100% fewer cases in 2020 than in 2019). After the court reopened, there was a surge of new General Jurisdiction case filings with an overall total number that was greater than the previous year (12% more case filings than during the same time period in 2019) and a dampened return of Limited Jurisdiction case filings (41% fewer cases in 2020 compared to 2019). COVID-19’s impact on case filings in the Sacramento County Superior Court is likely magnified by the fact that e-filing at this court is currently limited to small claims and unlawful detainer cases.

New Case Filings by Month – Sacramento

Year-Over-Year Comparison of New Case Filings – Sacramento

Sacramento County Superior Court

April 2018 April 2019 % Change April 2020 % Change May 2018 May 2019 % Change May 2020 % Change
General Jurisdiction 998 794 -20% 54 -93% 807 903 12% 1,009 12%
Limited Jurisdiction 1,060 1,160 9% 0 -100% 1,084 1,215 12% 715 -41%

 

Surveying New Case Filings – San Bernardino

San Bernardino County Superior Court was closed for non-essential new case filings from March 19 – May 28, 2020. In April 2020 compared to April 2019, the new case filings were dramatically reduced for General Jurisdiction (92% fewer cases) and Limited Jurisdiction (99% fewer cases). For May 2020 compared to May 2019, the new case filings were quite reduced for General Jurisdiction (59% fewer cases) and Limited Jurisdiction cases (68% fewer cases). On May 29, 2020, the first day after the pandemic shutdown to offer non-essential court services, 937 new cases were filed. The decreases in case filings were also likely exacerbated by the limited e-filing options available in San Bernardino County Superior Court. Out of the six court locations that handle civil matters, e-filing is only available at one location (the Civil Division of the San Bernardino District).

New Case Filings by Month – San Bernardino

Year-Over-Year Comparison of New Case Filings – San Bernardino

San Bernardino County Superior Court

April 2018 April 2019 % Change April 2020 % Change May 2018 May 2019 % Change May 2020 % Change
General Jurisdiction 1,067 1,140 7% 87 -92% 1,125 1,093 -3% 447 -59%
Limited Jurisdiction 1,915 2,537 32% 13 -99% 1,860 1,893 2% 601 -68%

 

Surveying New Case Filings – Houston Metro Area

In Texas, civil trial cases may be heard in district or county court, with differences in the matters covered and whether the amount in controversy is unlimited (District Court) or limited (County Court). For both Fort Bend and Harris counties, the new case filings for the County Courts were greatly reduced in 2020 compared to 2019 whereas new case filings for the District Courts were slightly reduced. Note that case filings in 2019 increased compared to 2018 (primarily due to debt collection and contract disputes) in all four Houston Area courts that Lex Machina reviewed. Therefore, the significant decrease in case filings that we note here between the April and May comparison intervals in 2019 and 2020 operates under the assumption that but-for the pandemic, 2020 filings would have continued to follow the trend from 2019 rather than return to case filings numbers from 2018 or earlier.

Fort Bend County District Court saw a substantial decline in case filings in April 2020 (51% fewer cases compared to April 2019), a trend that continued in May 2020 (52% fewer cases compared to May 2019). Fort Bend County Court had a more dramatic decrease in case filings in April 2020 (78% fewer cases compared to April 2019), and the decrease continued in May 2020 (67% fewer cases compared to May 2019).

Harris County District Court saw a drop in case filings in April 2020 (27% fewer cases compared to April 2019), a trend that also continued in May 2020 (28% fewer cases compared to May 2019). Harris County Court had a more dramatic decrease in case filings in April 2020 (68% fewer cases compared to April 2019), and the decrease continued in May 2020 (62% fewer cases compared to May 2019).

New Case Filings by Month – Fort Bend County

Year-Over-Year Comparison of New Case Filings – Fort Bend County

 Fort Bend County District Court & Fort Bend County Court

April 2018 April 2019 % Change April 2020 % Change >May 2018 May 2019 % Change May 2020 % Change
Fort Bend County District Court 343 463 35% 228 -51% 365 461 26% 219 -52%
Fort Bend County Court 172 283 65% 63 -78% 143 257 80% 84 -67%

 

New Case Filings by Month – Harris County

Year-Over-Year Comparison of New Case Filings – Harris County

Harris County District Court & Harris County Court

April 2018 April 2019 % Change April 2020 % Change May 2018 May 2019 % Change May 2020 % Change
Harris County District Court 3,516 3,594 2% 2,607 -27% 3,564 3,606 1% 2,582 -28%
Harris County Court 1,523 1,926 26% 622 -68% 1,524 2,281 50% 870 -62%

 

 Surveying New Case Filings – Las Vegas

Clark County District Court (Las Vegas) had an overall decrease in case filings in 2020 compared to 2019 for both April (29% fewer cases) and May (31% fewer cases). This decrease was prevented from being more dramatic due to an increase in new Torts cases filed in April and May 2020 (2% and 5% more cases compared to the same time period in 2019). New case filings for all other case types were decreased in both April and May 2020 (52% and 55% fewer cases compared to the same time period in 2019).

New Case Filings by Month – Las Vegas

Year-Over-Year Comparison of New Case Filings – Las Vegas

Clark County District Court

April 2018 April 2019 % Change April 2020 % Change May 2018 May 2019 % Change May 2020 % Change
Torts 726 784 8% 802 2% 637 755 19% 794 5%
All Other Case Types 920 1,041 13% 499 -52% 918 1,166 27% 529 -55%
Overall 1,646 1,825 11% 1,301 -29% 1,555 1,921 24% 1,323 -31%

 

Surveying New Case Filings – Delaware Court of Chancery

The Delaware Court of Chancery had an increase in case filings in 2020 compared to 2019 for both April (4% more cases) and May (15% more cases). This increase was anchored by Commercial Law and Corporation Law case filings, which both had more cases filed in April 2020 compared to April 2019 (26% more Commercial Law cases and 3% more Corporation Law cases), and in May 2020 compared to May 2019 (32% more Commercial Law cases and 7% more Corporation Law cases).

Our practice area expert observed that many Commercial and Corporation Law cases filed in April and May 2020 involved specific performance, breach of contract relating to a sale or merger, and/or breach of fiduciary duties. There have also been numerous new cases filed requesting the Delaware Court of Chancery to interpret whether COVID-19 qualifies as a Material Adverse Effect, a standard clause in purchase and merger agreements. By contrast, all other Fields of Law in combination had a decrease in filings in April and May of 2020 (25% and 24% decreases respectively, compared to the same time period in 2019).

New Case Filings by Month – Delaware Court of Chancery

Year-Over-Year Comparison of New Case Filings – Delaware Court of Chancery

Delaware Court of Chancery Court

April 2018 April 2019 % Change April 2020 % Change May 2018 May 2019 % Change May 2020 % Change
Commercial Law 21 19 -10% 24 26% 23 22 -4% 29 32%
Corporation Law 43 33 -23% 34 3% 39 44 13% 47 7%
All Other Fields of Law 34 24 10% 21 -25% 25 20 -10% 23 -24%
Overall 98 76 -22% 79 4% 87 86 -1% 99 15%

 

 Our team continues to monitor the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on litigation and aims to present meaningful updates to trends as they unfold. We will monitor new case filings after the scheduled reopenings and explore the long term effect on civil trial court cases in state courts. In addition, Lex Machina’s COVID-19 Impact Analyzer is available as a public resource to access analytics on how the federal district court system has been impacted by COVID-19: (https://law.lexmachina.com/apps/demo?app=covid).

This data was gathered from the Lex Machina platform on June 16, 2020. The Lex Machina platform updates daily and therefore any numbers in this blog post will change as new cases get added to the court systems. This report is meant to provide trends and general research information as of the date of publication.