Expedited Civil Actions: Initial Impressions

Posted by Benjamin Merrill in June 2016 on 6/10/2016

Expedited Civil Actions: Initial Impressions (Download a PDF of this article)

The newly enacted Expedited Civil Action (ECA) system is still in its infancy. Nevertheless, BrownWinick attorneys have been involved in several of proceedings and through those experiences, have gained insight regarding how these actions may develop in our state’s legal system. Based on our experiences, the ECA system provides a fair, efficient method for solving disputes that might otherwise go unresolved or unpursued.

The Supreme Court describes ECA proceedings as follows:

Beginning January 1, 2015, an alternative civil litigation track is available in Iowa for cases with claims of $75,000 or less. The goal of this new rule—Iowa Rule of Civil Procedure 1.281—is to reduce the time and cost of civil litigation while increasing access to justice. The rule features limits on discovery and summary judgment motions, a trial date within one year, time limits on each side’s trial presentation, and a six person jury or the option to try the case to the judge.

Iowa Judicial Branch, Expedited Civil Actions, http://www.iowacourts.gov/About_the_Courts/District_Courts/Expedited_Civil_Actions/ (visited March 25, 2016).

In short, an ECA is traditional “trial-light,” having most of the benefits of a regular trial but with scaled back content and procedure. The ECA system cuts discovery, motion practice, timing allotments, and jury size, but secures a trial date within one year and limits a party’s exposure (or recovery) to $75,000.00 or less. It is important to note that it is a plaintiff’s choice to elect into the ECA proceeding. In other words, defendants cannot unilaterally choose to proceed under the new ECA rules and protections.

The goals of the ECA - reducing the time and cost of civil litigation and increasing access to expedited justice - may be attractive to anyone with a legal claim or defense, particularly those without the time or funds to take the case through the traditional trial process. For plaintiffs, this means that wrongs resulting in less than $75,000.00 in damages are now more economical to pursue. The same is true for defendants, as the ECA alleviates one of the main obstacles to resolving certain claims despite the availability of a strong defense, i.e. the prohibitive cost of lengthy litigation.

One benefit provided is a prompt trial date. Unresolved litigation can be stressful. It complicates planning, causes uncertainty, and can lead to negative impacts on personal and business relationships. Getting a trial date within a year is a huge plus. However, the prompt trial date also requires careful attention and assessment at the front end of the litigation process. As a plaintiff, you do not want to be discovering thousands of dollars in additional damages, profound or novel legal arguments, or key witnesses only months before trial. Furthermore, once you have elected into the ECA system, it is hard to back out. By rule, exceptions are only granted for “substantially changed circumstances,” a term of art that remains to be fully developed in this area.

The ECA system’s design provides a mechanism for parties to pursue cases involving factually and/or legally straightforward claims and defenses. Possible examples of ECA cases may be minor personal injury claims or breach of contract actions involving total damages of less than $75,000. Reduced costs on discovery and motion practice can also be beneficial, but the ECA system restricts the parties’ ability to pursue certain litigation techniques that are otherwise available. For instance, the possible grounds to file a motion for summary judgment are restricted.

Of course, questions remain regarding this new system. Theoretically, the ECA system sounds great, but how is it working in practice? Will it inevitably evolve to favor one side or the other? Will it truly provide a cost-effective way for all parties to adjudicate minor disputes? Given what we have seen thus far, the ECA system has many benefits—but it is certainly not appropriate for each and every case. Every case is unique. Some fit nicely into the new ECA system, but others do not. Before opting for the ECA system, you should confer closely with counsel as to whether this is what is best for your claim. For cases properly in the ECA system, this new option can reduce the costs, both direct and indirect, of litigation.

Benjamin R. Merrill is an associate attorney at the BrownWinick law firm, practicing primarily in the area of litigation. Ben represents clients in various levels of litigation, including federal, state and administrative proceedings in all areas of business litigation, workers’ compensation, employment and labor law, construction law and agribusiness. You can reach Ben at (515) 242-2487 or merrill@brownwinick.com