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Federal Courts Across the Nation and in the DC Metro Area Face an Increase in Civil Caseloads


The number of civil cases pending in federal courts has increased substantially since the beginning of the pandemic.1 There was a substantial 41% uptick in cases filed nationally in 2020. The number of new case filings was down 27% in 2021, although the number of cases filed nationally remained above pre-pandemic levels.

The number of cases being resolved by federal courts declined 14% in 2020, and another 2% in 2021. However, the number of civil cases pending increased 48.5% in 2020, with a further 10.5% increase in 2021. As federal courts work through the substantial backlog accumulated over the last two years, litigants should expect a longer timeline for the resolution of most civil litigation.

In 2021, the average time nationally for civil cases to reach trial from the initial filing has gone up by an average of four months to 31.8 months (~2.7 years). In Maryland, federal civil cases saw a dramatic increase in the amount of time to reach trial from 30.5 months (~2.5 years) in 2020 to 45.9 months (~3.8 years) in 2021. Although D.C. federal civil cases in 2021 are taking a similar or lesser time to reach trial than in the prior five years, D.C. remained above the national average with about 42.7 months (~3.5 years) to reach trial. Virginia federal courts, which have had below national average times for cases to reach trial, saw an average of six additional months for a case to reach trial in 2021 (18.2 months in Eastern Virginia and 27.9 months in Western Virginia).

Nevertheless, federal courts in D.C., Virginia, and Maryland have each experienced a steady decline in the number of private, civil cases being filed since 2019. There have been some interesting trends concerning the nature of cases being primarily affected:

  • Private Contract Cases. In 2021, federal courts in D.C. and Virginia each had a 21% decline in private contract cases. The prior year, D.C. and Virginia respectively had a 22% and 8% increase in private contract cases filed. Maryland had a 19% decline in private contract cases filed in 2020, without a significant change in 2021.
  • Real Property Cases. D.C. and Maryland each saw a steady decline in the number of private real property cases being filed since 2020, and Virginia saw a dramatic decline each year since 2019.
  • Civil Rights Cases. Virginia federal courts saw a dramatic 41% decline in private civil rights cases filed in 2021. In contrast, Maryland and D.C. have seen a modest increase of 14% and 6%, respectively in private civil rights being filed in 2021.
  • Private Labor Suits. Federal courts in D.C., Virginia, and Maryland all saw a decrease in the number of private labor suits being filed. Private labor suits are down in 2021 approximately 28% in D.C., 34% in Maryland, and 15% in Virginia when comparing 2019 and 2021 filings.
  • Personal Injury & Tort Cases. Maryland saw a 20% decline in private tort cases in 2020 and another 11% decline in 2021. After a significant pre-pandemic 116% increase in private tort cases filed in D.C. in 2019, tort cases are now only slightly above 2018 levels. 

In contrast, Virginia had a 1% increase in private tort cases filed in 2020 and a 4% increase in 2021.

If you have any questions about this legal update or seek additional information, please contact Daniel Prywes or Christos Christodoulou.

1 National statistics include both private cases and cases involving the U.S. government, which includes prisoner petitions.