Trials & Litigation

Law profs find an 'astonishing' drop in win rates for federal plaintiffs

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Success rates for plaintiffs in adjudicated federal cases declined from about 70 percent in 1985 to 33 percent in 2009, according to a draft study by two law professors.

University of Connecticut law professors Alexandra Lahav and Peter Siegelman say they can’t point to a single reason for the “astonishing” drop in success rates, Reuters reports. “A significant puzzle remains unsolved,” they write in the draft study, available here.

The success rates declined over a 10-year period, then remained at about the 35 percent level, with some volatility, over the next 15 years, the professors say.

The statistics are partly affected by differences in the types of suits being brought, the researchers acknowledge. Suits for overpayment of veterans benefits, mostly always won by the government, were essentially gone from the docket by 2009. There were also more prisoner habeas adjudications over time, which have low win rates. But those cases make up a small part of the docket and don’t provide a full explanation.

It’s possible that judicial attitudes toward plaintiffs are changing, the professors told Reuters, but they would need additional data to test the theory. The federal courts don’t release case outcomes for particular judges, information that would be helpful for researchers.

“What our results show is that there’s a need to study the court system to understand what happens in the aggregate,” Lahav told Reuters. “There are systemic things going on.”

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