Success rates for plaintiffs in federal court have dropped dramatically from the 1980’s. In a study by two University of Connecticut law professors, they reported a success rate of 70% for plaintiffs in federal court in the mid 1980’s. The study looked at adjudicated civil cases of all types. That rate dropped to about 35% by 1995 and stayed in that range through 2009. The professors cannot explain the large drop. They did note that federal government suits for overpayment of veterans benefits mostly disappeared from the docket by 2009 and those suits were generally sure wins for the plaintiff. Otherwise, they could discern no pattern that might explain the large drop. The researchers discounted some possible theories, that poorer cases were being filed for the time period; that more weak sorts of lawsuits were being filed, such as prisoner cases; and that rise in dispositive motions caused more losses for the plaintiffs. The professors explained that if the dispositive motion theory caused this effect, then the plaintiff success rate should increase. Since, winning at summary judgment would be considered an adjudicated victory for the plaintiff.

The professors theorize that the success rate might relate to certain federal judges. That theory is problematical itself. It would be hard to envision a scenario in which federal judges become hostile to plaintiffs for ten years and then relent. But, even so, there is no way at present to determine if what might have caused such a large drop. See ABA Bar Journal report here. The paper, “The Curious Incident of the Falling Win Rate,” is available here.