How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Alternative dispute resolution
The Alternative Dispute Resolution Act of 1998 requires that each federal district court provide at least one form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) to litigants in civil cases. ADR is also available to some bankruptcy courts and all courts of appeals. Whether or not a case is referred to ADR depends on the court where the case is filed. In some courts, the decision whether to use an ADR process is left to the parties, whereas in some other courts parties are expected to use an ADR process. In most courts, judges have authority to require parties to use ADR; some judges are more likely to refer cases to ADR than others.
Most ADR proceedings are conducted by professionals from the private sector, usually attorneys. A few district courts and most appellate courts employ mediators on staff. All ADR procedures in the federal courts are nonbinding, that is, parties are not bound by a proposed settlement or decision unless they agree to be bound by it.
The types of ADR procedures used in a federal court may include some or all of the following: mediation, arbitration, early neutral evaluation, summary jury trial, and settlement week.
In this informal process, a mediator facilitates discussions between the parties to help them resolve their dispute. The mediator may work to improve communication between the parties, help them clarify their interests and assess their case, and help them come up with options for resolving the dispute. The outcome of mediation is solely in the hands of the parties; the mediator does not give a decision. Mediation may occur at any time during the life of the case and is the ADR method most commonly found in the district courts.
In this fairly formal process, one or three arbitrators hear presentations by each side in the case and then issue a nonbinding decision. Either party may reject the decision and request a trial. Arbitration hearings are generally held later in the case, near or after completion of discovery.
Early neutral evaluation
In this early and informal process, each side presents its case to an experienced, impartial attorney (a neutral evaluator) who has expertise in the subject matter of the dispute. The neutral evaluator then gives the parties a nonbinding assessment of the value or merits of the case. If the parties wish, the evaluator may also help them develop a discovery plan or may assist them with settlement discussions.
Summary jury and summary bench trials
In these formal procedures, which occur late in the case, the parties’ lawyers present their case in summary form with no witnesses. In a summary jury trial the case is presented to a jury, and in a summary bench trial the case is presented to a judge. After the presentation, the jury or judge delivers a nonbinding advisory verdict, which the parties may choose to accept, reject, or use as a basis for settlement negotiations.
In a typical settlement week, a court suspends normal trial activity and, aided by volunteer mediators, sends numerous cases that are ready for trial to mediation sessions held at the courthouse. Cases unresolved during settlement week are returned to the court’s regular docket for further pretrial or trial proceedings as needed.