Complex litigation in California state courts

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Most civil actions in the California state courts are relatively simple, both from a factual and legal standpoint. Similarly, most civil actions involve one plaintiff (or one group of plaintiffs) and one defendant (or one group of defendants). The California Legislature and each Superior Court have imposed “standard” case management policies and procedures that govern these “simple” cases. In general, these cases are intended to be resolved (by trial or settlement) within 1-2 years from the filing of the complaint. Although this period can be extended for exigent circumstances, trial courts throughout the state pressure lawyers to meet this deadline.

However, there are certain cases that cannot be managed by the standard policies and procedures given the complexity of the legal and factual issues and the number of parties. Certainly, these cases cannot be resolved within the relatively short time period required of the “standard” civil action. Thankfully, the California Legislature and each Superior Court have enacted special rules governing “complex litigation” which are exempted from the so-called Fast Track rules.

As defined by California Rules of Court, rule 3.400(a), complex litigation involves a case that requires “exceptional judicial management to avoid placing unnecessary burdens on the court, or the litigants and to expedite the case, keep costs reasonable, and promote effective decision making by the court, the parties, and counsel.” Upon filing the complaint, a plaintiff may unilaterally designate a case as complex, subject to a “counter-designation” by defendants. Or, defendants can join in the designation. Regardless of the parties’ designation, the trial court will ultimately decide whether a case is complex.

In deciding whether an action is complex, the trial court must consider, among other things, whether the action is likely to involve: (1) Numerous pretrial motions raising difficult or novel legal issues that will be time-consuming to resolve; (2) Management of a large number of witnesses or a substantial amount of documentary evidence; (3) Management of a large number of separately represented parties; (4) Coordination with related actions pending in one or more courts in other counties, states, or countries, or in a federal court; or (5) Substantial postjudgment judicial supervision. (Rule of Court 3.400(b).) Moreover, certain cases are provisionally deemed complex, such as those involving antitrust or trade regulation, construction defect claims, securities claims, environmental or toxic tort claims, mass torts, and class actions.

Once a case is deemed complex, it will be assigned to one judge for all purposes who is encouraged to establish time limits “to expedite major phases of complex litigation.” (Rule of Court, Standards of Jud. Admin., Standard 3.10(d).) Unlike in “standard” cases which are governed solely by the Code of Civil Procedure, a complex case will be governed by a Case Management Order (“CMO”) which will provide guidelines, deadlines, and procedures for all aspects of the litigation from discovery through trial. The goal of the CMO is to assure disposition of complex cases within three years after filing.

Scali Rasmussen is routinely involved in complex litigation, as counsel for both plaintiffs and defendants. Our litigators focus on early assessment of the claims and potential exposure to determine the best strategic and cost-effective approach to prosecute or defend against the litigation, whether through alternative dispute resolution (such as mediation), summary judgment, or trial.