How Long Can A Lawsuit Take?

Copyright Photodisc/Getty ImagesSome lawsuits are resolved quickly, usually by a negotiated settlement. See the button for “Mediation.” The best and fastest settlements are achieved when the defendant is worried about losing the case at trial, and that happens when the plaintiff has very good facts, an attorney who knows how to use these facts, and the employer has an attorney who recognizes the danger to the employer.

If there is no settlement, a lawsuit can take a long time. With statutes that require EEOC charges, the charge can be before the EEOC for six to eight months before the agency issues a Notice of Right to Sue, and then has to be filed in court.

For example, a case can start out in State court because some State laws and court procedures give you better rights, but the defendant may find a way to move the case into Federal court. That will cost time. There might be a fight with the employer about whether to remand the case back to State court. That will cost more time. There might be a fight with the employer about whether the Federal court should hear the State-law claims, or send them back. That will cost even more time. If these decisions are reversed on appeal, yet more time will be consumed.

Once it’s clear what court system the case should be in, it can bounce between the trial court and the Court of Appeals several times. In one recent class action in Texas, I had two evidentiary hearings before the trial court in Houston, five oral arguments before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, and the other side then tried to take the case to the Supreme Court. We got a good result, but the total time involved was eleven years.

Even in simpler cases on behalf of a single individual, if both sides fight every issue, it can take many years to resolve the case.

If no settlement agreement can be reached, then the lawsuit will be litigated all the way. The employee suing will probably not get any relief for a minimum of three or four years: neither money, nor a court order reinstating a fired employee, nor a change in discriminatory practices. It often takes longer. I have had cases in which the whole case was held up for a couple of years because the judge simply did not decide an important motion.

Fortunately, most judges are much speedier, but we all have to keep in mind that the courts are overburdened. The average Federal judge has to resolve over 475 cases a year – almost two cases per working day when time off for vacation and illness is taken into account. There are too many cases, too few judges, and not enough support staff.