It is unsurprising that COVID-19 has impacted nearly all aspects of the legal profession, but the severity of the impact and the distribution of the effects have played out in interesting and sometimes unusual ways in the state courts. The question of how the pandemic affected case filings in state courts is an intriguing area of the legal profession, particularly given the vast volume and breadth of matters handled by state courts. With legal analytics platform Lex Machina, we recently analyzed data for civil cases filed in nine different state courts, comparing cases filed during April and May of 2020 against previous years. The data supported a number of interesting observations:
Case Filings Decreased Overall Across Most State Courts
Most of the state courts reviewed showed a significant decrease in case filings during the early months of the pandemic in April and May 2020, compared to parallel time periods in previous years. For the nine state courts reviewed, overall total case filings in April 2020 were 53% lower than in April 2019, and 49% lower in May 2020 compared to May 2019. One of the proximate causes of this drop is likely due to the shutdown of the courts, which limited or closed off important avenues for filing cases. This explanation is supported by our data from the period of time directly after courts began to reopen in May, which demonstrated a spike in case filings directly following reopening. In Sacramento County Superior Court, general jurisdiction cases filed in April 2020 dropped 93% compared to April 2020. After reopening in May 2020, however, general jurisdiction cases increased 12% compared to May 2019.
The Impact of the Pandemic was Affected by Filing Options
The analytics demonstrated that the effect of COVID-19 on state court case filings was amplified in courts that did not provide access to e-filing or only provided e-filing under limited circumstances. The data showed that case filings in San Bernardino and Sacramento County Superior Courts, which provided limited e-filing options, were more affected by the pandemic than case filings in Los Angeles County Superior Court, which implemented mandatory e-filing in 2019. To illustrate, general jurisdiction cases filed in April 2020 compared to April 2019 dropped only 9% in Los Angeles but dropped 92% in San Bernardino and 93% in Sacramento.
COVID-19 had a Greater Effect on Limited Jurisdiction Cases
Though both experienced a decrease in case filings, the analytics revealed that limited jurisdiction cases experienced a greater drop in case filings than general or unlimited jurisdiction cases. The likely explanation for this discrepancy is twofold – first, a large bulk of limited jurisdiction cases usually comprise evictions and debt collections. Due to the nature of the pandemic, the regulations against evictions, and the societal pressure not to pursue collections, it is understandable that these case types would be particularly susceptible to the suppressing effects of COVID-19 on case filings. This theory is corroborated by the analytics from the Los Angeles County Superior Court, where the severe drop in limited jurisdiction case filings (63% fewer in April 2020 than April 2019) is at least partially explained by the large decrease in collections cases (only 2,365 filed in April 2020 compared to 7,854 filed in April 2019).
The second factor is that limited jurisdiction cases also include disputes over small monetary amounts brought by individuals. A pandemic would be more likely to deter these individual parties from pursuing litigation than their corporate counterparts, due to the difference in resources available to them. In addition, individuals filing limited jurisdiction cases are more likely to rely on in-person filing, and when the courts shut down, their primary avenue for case filing was closed. For example, the Los Angeles County Superior Court provides an exemption to their mandatory e-filing for self-represented parties, all of whom would have found it difficult to navigate e-filing logistics once the courts shut down. This is exacerbated by the fact that the clerk’s offices provided limited hours to respond to filing questions.
The Exception to the Drop in Cases Occurred in Delaware Court of Chancery
In contrast to the other state courts reviewed, case filings increased during April and May 2020 in the Delaware Court of Chancery when compared to the relevant periods in 2019. In April 2020, 4% more cases were filed in the DCC than in April 2019, and 15% more cases were filed in May 2020 than in May 2019. The increase in case filings was driven by new Corporation and Commercial Law case filings, which both experienced an increase in case filings for the relevant time periods. This finding indicates that cases related to COVID-19 are driving up overall litigation in the DCC. Our practice area expert corroborated this theory, observing that many of these new cases requested that the DCC interpret whether COVID-19 constitutes a Material Adverse Effect in purchase or merger agreements.
COVID-19 has impacted nearly every aspect of the legal profession, and our legal analytics showed that case filings in state courts were greatly affected. The state courts rule over an expansive number of matters varied in breadth and complexity and provide a critical legal outlet for individuals and corporations alike. We will continue to monitor the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the legal profession. We urge anyone to utilize our publicly available COVID-19 Impact Analyzer to access analytics on how the federal district court system has been affected by COVID-19.