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Delaware's Complex Civil Litigation Court: One Year Later

May 18, 2012
Edward M. McNally
Delaware Business Court Insider

On May 1, 2010, the Delaware Superior Court established a specialized "division" within that court to handle business disputes, known as the "Complex Civil Litigation Division" (or "CCLD"). The CCLD complements the Court of Chancery by offering a specialized business court to handle cases for monetary damages where jurisdiction would not exist in the Court of Chancery. Three specially assigned judges handle the cases assigned to the CCLD. Now that a year has passed, it is time to review the work of the CCLD and to assess its future. The CCLD is off to a good start, but remains an underutilized resource for businesses faced with civil litigation.

For a number of years, civil litigation involving business disputes has been plagued by inefficiency, escalating costs and delay. Three areas in particular caused much of the trouble with business litigation. First, discovery of electronically stored information caused litigation costs to escalate even beyond the amounts in dispute. Second, delays from crowded court dockets frustrated businesses with a problem to resolve. Third, discovery disputes over privileged communications and the testimony of expert witnesses that are often involved in business disputes also increased litigation costs and delays.

The CCLD addresses each of these areas of concern. It utilizes judges experienced in business disputes who, by a Case Management Order ("CMO") entered at the outset of litigation, keep the litigation on track to a fixed trial date. The CMO also controls the discovery process and the collateral disputes that otherwise often derail a case. Discovery of electronically stored information ("e-discovery") is subject to a set of guidelines that require litigants to cooperate in e-discovery and to reduce its costs. Other protocols are imposed to limit disputes over the discovery of privileged communications and expert witnesses, with the goal of further reducing litigation costs.

None of these special aspects of the CCLD are groundbreaking innovations. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, for example, require case management conferences and court orders establishing pretrial and trial schedules. Those rules also were recently amended to better control e-discovery and expert witness discovery. Federal Rule of Evidence 502 also was added to better control attorney-client privilege disputes. The CCLD has freely borrowed from these innovations of the federal courts.

Moreover, the CCLD for the most part has chosen to characterize its special procedures as guidelines for litigants to adopt or modify as they choose by their own agreements. Thus, the parties may opt out of the expert witness, e-discovery and privileged communication guidelines of the CCLD if they wish. The court has made it clear that it will accept any reasonable proposal the parties choose.

Now that the CCLD has been in place for one year, it makes sense to see if its new procedures for Delaware’s Superior Court have succeeded in resolving the problems confronting business litigation.

As the awareness of the CCLD has grown, business for the CCLD has picked up speed. To date, 49 substantial business disputes have been assigned to the CCLD and its three judges. Our review of the dockets of those 49 cases (together with our direct participation in 25 percent of these cases) leads us to conclude the CCLD is making progress, but is still an underutilized resource.

The 49 cases fall into four categories: (1) those matters diverted from the CCLD by voluntary settlement, bankruptcy stays or removal to federal court; (2) those matters just recently filed whose history is too short to be analyzed; (3) those matters subject to motions to dismiss; and (4) those matters being actually litigated. In our experience this breakdown is typical of business litigation. For example, the CCLD attracts many insurance coverage disputes that are usually resolved by determinations of the scope of an insurance policy, often in the context of a motion to dismiss. Full litigation including discovery is not common in those cases.

Of the cases actually going forward in the full litigation process, the large majority are subject to some form of CMO, including protocols on expert and privileged document discovery. Delays caused by discovery disputes seem to have been avoided, with savings in time and expense. Thus, as to those cases, the CCLD is working out as planned. Of course, a more complete review of how CCLD is working must await a significant number of CCLD cases going to trial or at least going through the full litigation process.

The mere existence of the CCLD protocols as guidelines also may be having a positive effect even if the parties to the litigation do not choose to explicitly adopt them. E-discovery is an example. The CCLD has a detailed set of "E-Discovery Plan Guidelines." Those guidelines require that the parties submit an "e-discovery" plan to the court, unless "the parties otherwise agree." The parties are reaching agreements on e-discovery and thus the guidelines are having their intended effect of reducing e-discovery costs.

Of course, as with anything new, there are some problems that the CCLD is working to address. Motions to dismiss a complaint sometimes delay assignment of a matter to the CCLD. If it was a defendant who requested assignment to the CCLD, that assignment was planned to occur after an answer to a complaint was filed. If there was no answer but instead a motion to dismiss, assignment was delayed in these cases. Motions to dismiss have also delayed entry of a CMO. That is understandable given that granting such a motion will save the court from entering a useless CMO. Such a delay in ultimate case disposition when a motion to dismiss is eventually denied is a problem in all civil litigation. The CCLD is expected to address these issues shortly.

Finally, the CCLD appears to be an underutilized resource as it passes its first-year anniversary. We are told that the CCLD judges are able to go to trial on almost any schedule the parties choose. While that capacity may not last forever, it is a big advantage to litigants. Given Delaware’s predominance as a corporate domicile where jurisdiction over Delaware entities is established, companies interested in efficient resolution of business disputes before specially-focused judges should more frequently file their claims in the CCLD. If businesses are serious about improving the efficiency and predictability of business litigation, they will choose the Delaware Superior Court’s CCLD more frequently. We are confident that as the CCLD’s reputation grows, its docket will grow as well.

Edward M. McNally ( emcnally@morrisjames.com) is a partner at Morris James in Wilmington and a member of its corporate and fiduciary litigation group. He practices primarily in the Delaware Superior Court and Court of Chancery handling disputes involving contracts, business torts and managers and stakeholders of Delaware business organizations. The views expressed herein are his alone and not those of his firm or any of the firm’s clients.