U.S. District Judge Jerome Simandle (Photo: Carmen Natale/ALM)
More civil cases are lingering unresolved on the dockets of New Jersey federal judges, according to a report issued this week by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Meanwhile, the state’s federal judges are showing continued improvement in promptness of rulings on motions, according to the report, which was issued under the Criminal Justice Reform Act.
The District of New Jersey had 568 civil cases pending three years or longer as of Sept. 30, 2016, according to the latest CJRA report, which was made public this week. That compares to 498 cases in March 2016, for a six-month increase of 14 percent. That’s far smaller than the increase posted across the federal court system as a whole, where the number of cases pending three years or longer rose 34 percent in the same six-month period.
The number of cases on the docket for three years or longer in New Jersey has been steadily heading upward for some time—in September 2015, 490 cases fell into that category, compared to 472 in March 2015 and 351 in September 2014.
“Despite everything and despite having one of the heaviest caseloads, judge for judge, our 3-year-old case list is lower than the national average,” said Chief Judge Jerome Simandle, “but it is growing. It’s more evidence we need our vacancies filled.”
The District of New Jersey has two judicial vacancies on its 17-member federal bench, and that number will rise to three when Simandle takes senior status at the end of the month.
This week’s report also shows 37 motions pending six months or longer in the District of New Jersey as of Sept. 30, 2016, down from 81 in March 2016, for a reduction of 54 percent. Nationwide, that category saw a 1 percent increase in the same period. In September 2015 the state showed 134 motions pending more than six months, compared to 115 in March 2015 and 153 in September 2014.
The 568 cases older than three years represent roughly 5 percent of the district’s total caseload of 10,679 cases on Sept. 30. That shows New Jersey is doing better than the nation as a whole. Nationwide, there were 36,929 civil cases pending over three years, representing 8 percent of the nationwide caseload. Eight of the 12 circuits reported an increase in 3-year-old cases, with the biggest growth driven by multidistrict litigation over pelvic support products in the Fourth Circuit and over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the report said.
MDLs are also a factor in New Jersey backlogs as the state is second only to the Southern District of New York in the volume of MDLs assigned by the Judicial Panel for Multidistrict Litigation.
Some district judges reported significantly more cases that have passed the three-year mark than others.
•U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton showed the largest number of 3-year-old cases in the District of New Jersey, 113. However, all but six of those cases are part of a multidistrict litigation brought against Zimmer Holdings by people who suffered complications with the company’s Durom Cup hip implant.
Wigenton also had the most 3-year-old cases in the District of New Jersey in the previous CJRA report, with 56 cases, nearly all of them part of the Zimmer MDL. But many more of the Zimmer cases passed the three-year mark since that report was issued in March 2016.
•U.S. District Judge John Michael Vazquez is second in the number of civil cases that have passed the three-year mark, at 42, but he has no multidistrict litigation on his docket. For Vazquez, who has only been on the bench since January 2016, the backlog seems to be a result of inheriting long-running cases. The largest number of Vazquez’s unresolved cases—28—are tagged “recently received from the docket of another judge” in the report.
Simandle said Vazquez, who sits in Newark, had received cases from two other judges in that vicinage who had retired, Faith Hochberg and Dennis Cavanaugh, as well as from other sitting judges in Newark, to redistribute the caseload in that courthouse.
•Senior U.S. District Judge William Martini came in third in the District of New Jersey for the number of cases past the three-year mark, at 41. The report lists him with two groups of MDLs—one on behalf of consumers of Tropicana orange juice who claim the product was falsely labeled as “100 percent pure and natural,” and another claiming Morgan Stanley Smith Barney financial advisers were wrongly denied overtime pay. The last of the Morgan Stanley suits was dismissed in February, after the report was compiled.
Wigenton, through an assistant, declined to comment. Vazquez did not return a call. Martini’s staff said he was “in transit” and unavailable.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, U.S. District Judge Renee Bumb had only two cases that had passed the three-year point, while Senior U.S. District Judge Anne Thompson reported six. Obama appointees Madeline Cox Arleo and Brian Martinotti each had eight cases that were beyond the three-year point. In the report for March 2016, Judge Joseph Rodriguez was the leader with only five cases past the three-year point, followed by Bumb with six, and Thompson with 10.
Simandle said the median time to disposition for cases in the District of New Jersey is eight months, which compares favorably to other high-volume districts. In acting as a mecca for MDL cases, New Jersey provides a benefit to other courts, but mass torts “can effect the rest of the docket,” he said.
“New Jersey does receive a lot of MDL cases. Frankly, we like them, we like the challenge—they’re interesting cases. But they can pile up on the 3-year-old list,” Simandle said.
Contact the reporter at email@example.com On Twitter: @ctoutantnjlj.