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August 2011

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Expedited Trial Program Gives California Litigants Options

Expedited Trial Program Gives California Litigants Options

The Northern District of California has adopted an expedited trial program that will resolve certain cases in a one-day trial, reducing costs for litigants and their time in federal court. 

“Attorneys practicing in our court identified a need, particularly in some of our employment and civil rights cases, for an expedited trial program,” said Judge William Alsup. “We responded to that need.”

Alsup chaired a committee that was charged nearly a year ago by then-chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker to find ways to improve the administration of justice— including examining lengths of trials, especially for smaller cases. Clerk of Court Rich Wieking adds that the district, which is known for its innovations, including a robust alternative dispute resolution program, is always on the lookout for improved ways to move cases along.

The program is completely voluntary, but binding once agreed to, and the goal is to try a case within six months.

“The State of California had recently adopted an expedited trial program and, on the federal side, we were tasked with examining the idea to see if there was value for our court,” Alsup said. The committee was composed of district court judges, lawyers representing a variety of practice areas, the U.S. Attorneys Office, and the California Department of Justice.

“I was impressed by the thought all of the judges and attorneys put into crafting the program,” he said. “They all felt that, for a part of our caseload, it was entirely feasible to have a one- or one and a half day jury trial, if certain procedures were developed for federal courts.”

The program is completely voluntary, but binding once agreed to, and the goal is to try a case within six months. To participate, the parties execute an Agreement of Expedited Trial and Request for Approval. Once the agreement is approved, expedited time schedules and rules of procedure begin.

Parties may exercise a variety of creative options to customize the trial to their needs. For example, a plaintiff might be willing to participate if the defendant is willing to waive the right to move for summary judgment, while a defendant might be willing to participate if the plaintiff is willing to waive the right to seek punitive damages. The program will be a good fit for any short-cause matter.

“The process may also prove attractive in cases where the parties conclude that an expedited ruling on a single issue, such as comparative fault, will enable the parties to settle the other aspects of their dispute,” Alsup explained.

Timesavers are built into the program. Discovery is limited to ten interrogatories and 15 hours of deposition time to be used at the party’s discretion. Experts are limited to one per side, absent agreement of the parties or leave of the court; pretrial motions also require leave of the court and may not exceed three pages. Each side is allowed three hours for presentation of its case, including cross-examination. Six jurors are selected and the judge conducts the voir dire. Post-trial motions are limited to recovery of costs and attorney’s fees, and grounds for new trial motions and appeals are limited.

“We save costs and go directly to a short trial,” Alsup said. “Attorneys aren’t working through a pile of depositions. They’re not worrying about run away punitive damage awards. The two sides can narrow their differences and get a decision in a case.”

In the Northern District of California, nearly 75 percent of the caseload is civil. A small percentage of that caseload will be affected by the expedited trial program.

“The bar and our judges were open to an expedited trial program,” said Wieking. “We don’t expect a dramatic change in the court’s workload because this affects only a small subset of cases. But it is one more tool for us to use to manage cases.”

“It’s not a panacea,” Alsup agrees. “It’s more like fine-tuning. We’re providing this option because we believe there’s a demand in some cases for streamlined and expedited trials, with the attendant savings in cost and risk.”

The Committee on Expedited Trials is developing a series of continuing eduation programs to inform and train the bar in the use of the expedited trial program.