Are We There Yet? The Journey To Lawsuit Resolution in North Carolina Federal Courts  

By Mike Mitchell, Shameka Rolla and Ed Roche
Published by

Fourth Circuit decision highlights the wide discretion federal district courts have to manage their calendars. The timing of litigation in federal courts is case-specific and hard to predict, but data from North Carolina federal courts provides some general guidance.

Whether your business is considering bringing a lawsuit or preparing to defend against a lawsuit, you will likely want to know how long it takes to litigate a case. In a recent decision, In re Strickland, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit considered a plaintiff’s request that the Fourth Circuit order the trial court to provide an earlier trial date. The Fourth Circuit denied the request, saying such an order “would be entirely inappropriate” in light of every trial court’s discretion to manage its own docket and calendar. The case highlights two of the challenging realities of litigation: it takes time and the timelines are unpredictable. Every case is different. But the courts publish data showing how long various phases of litigation generally take, which gives at least some guidance. Here, we look at the recent data on the average timelines in North Carolina’s federal courts.

Background to the Strickland Case

The plaintiff filed suit in March 2020 against her former employer, a Federal Public Defender’s Office. The plaintiff alleged she was sexually harassed by a coworker and that the Office’s response to the harassment violated her constitutional rights. The case followed a meandering trajectory. The case went to the Fourth Circuit, then back to the trial court. Mediation failed in August 2023 and the court set trial for December 2023. The plaintiff asked the Fourth Circuit to order an earlier trial date.

The Fourth Circuit refused to intervene. The plaintiff was asking the appeals court to issue a writ of mandamus: an order to the district court to take specific action—here, to schedule an earlier trial date. That is an “extraordinary” remedy, available only when there is an indisputable right to relief and the other party has a clear duty to act. Those criteria were not present here. The Fourth Circuit emphasized the broad discretion courts have to manage their cases and determined that the district court had not exercised its discretion inappropriately.

How Long Will We Have to Wait? 

As the Strickland case shows, parties have very little control over the progress of their cases. And the timing of each case varies (often widely) for several reasons. But data from the courts gives some rough guidance.

One of the time-consuming aspects of litigation is waiting for the court to rule on motions. For example, the data shows that federal courts in North Carolina take over three months, on average, to rule on a motion to dismiss (100 days in the Western District, 197 days in the Middle District, and 148 days in the Eastern District).

Parties must also factor in time for additional steps. It takes time for the parties to submit various filings. For example, a defendant has 21 days (often extended to 51) to respond to a complaint by filing an answer or motion to dismiss. The parties have several weeks to respond to motions filed by the other party at various points in the case. And in most complex civil cases, discovery will take at least six months.

Taking all this into account, and assuming a seven-month discovery period, it takes around a year and a half on average to get from filing a complaint in North Carolina’s federal courts to a decision on summary judgment (which aims to resolve issues after discovery but before trial). Specifically, 606 days in the Eastern District, 655 days in the Middle District, and 512 days in the Western District.

Getting to trial takes substantially longer. The data shows that, on average, it takes nearly three years (35 months) from the filing of a civil case until trial in a federal court in North Carolina.

These timelines do not include appeals to the Fourth Circuit after the district court resolves the case. The data shows that, on average, for civil cases other than those involving prisoner petitions, it takes over a year (12.4 months) to get from filing a notice of appeal to a decision by the Fourth Circuit.

However, very few cases go all the way to trial: less than 1 percent of cases in North Carolina’s three districts go to trial. Some cases are decided on a motion to dismiss or motion for summary judgment. Many are dismissed by the parties, whether through settlement or otherwise. For this reason, the average duration of a civil case in these courts is between six and nine months. 


The average civil case timelines in North Carolina’s federal courts are similar to nationwide averages. And there is significant variation between the timelines of courts around the country and at least some variation between the three districts in North Carolina.

The timelines discussed here merely serve as a rough guide. Courts are juggling heavy criminal case loads, and those cases take precedence over civil cases. Courts also may have peculiar burdens that affect their ability to manage their dockets, such as the Eastern District’s management of thousands of new cases involving Camp Lejeune water contamination. As the Strickland case shows, courts do and should have broad discretion over their case management.

Businesses involved in litigation therefore need to be prepared for a process that could take several years for a final judgment. But experienced litigators can offer business clients creative solutions—along with strategic use of court rules—for more efficient and expeditious resolution of civil cases. A trial is not the only way to arrive at the desired location on the road to resolution.

This article was first published on LAW.COM on May 1, 2024 and is republished here with permission. ©2024 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved.


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