This blog series tackles common questions insureds ask about their federal court cases. My last two posts explained the claims federal courts can handle, and how cases filed in state court end up in federal court. This blog entry provides a general overview of the pretrial litigation process in federal court.
The federal rules require the judge to issue a scheduling order governing the case’s progression. Before issuing the order, insureds’ attorneys and defense counsel meet and confer about an appropriate timeline for the litigation. The judge reviews the parties’ submission and issues a case management order. The case management order sets deadlines for initial disclosures, depositions, motions, mediation, dispositive motions, final pretrial conferences, and trial. Federal courts take case management deadlines seriously. Only the judge can grant permission to extend the deadlines.
Insureds can help their attorneys keep the case on track during litigation. Federal rules require parties to submit initial witnesses, document, and damages disclosures to the other side. The initial timeline for complying with court-ordered discovery is often very tight. During this time, it is important for insureds and their attorneys to work together to identify the important people in the case, secure documents, and meet all discovery obligations.
After initial disclosures, the scheduling order will set a timetable to respond to other discovery requests. Insurance counsel might ask insureds and their attorneys for additional documents and for answers to questions about the case. Responding to these requests is very important. Insureds can help their attorneys by being available to answer questions and looking through their records for responsive documents.
While discovery is ongoing, attorneys might file motions with the court. A motion is a written request for the court to order something. Two motions very common in federal court: (1) the motion to dismiss and (2) the motion for summary judgment.
First, insurers often ask the court to dismiss claims near the beginning of cases because the insureds’ complaints do not adequately allege a legal violation. After arguments, the court will decide what law applies, assume all factual allegations in the complaints are true, and determine if there are plausible claims to adjudicate.
Second, either party can move for summary judgment. Unlike a motion to dismiss (which focuses on a complaint’s allegations), a motion for summary judgment asks the court to look at actual evidence. Essentially, a motion for summary judgments argues there is no need for a trial because there is no disputed evidence and that the judge should just rule in favor of one party.
After motion practice concludes, the parties will appear in front of the judge at a final pretrial conference. The judge will ask if any additional matters need to be resolved before the trial. The judge might also make preliminary rulings, issue a trial order, and confirm a final trial date.
If the case has not settled, the parties will proceed to trial. Trial is where both sides present evidence in front of the jury about the case. Each side will call witnesses and present documents to support their claim. A jury will then decide who is right and who should prevail.