Another reason for the decline in public filings, said Stanford Law professor David Engstrom, is the proliferation of contracts by businesses requiring customers to agree to arbitration — a private system separate from the courts — on employment disputes and consumer issues such as phone bills. Arbitration proceedings are held behind closed doors, the decisions are virtually unappealable, and studies have found most of the rulings favor businesses, the arbitrators’ frequent customers.
At the same time, Engstrom said, state courts have seen large increases in other cases not subject to arbitration, particularly debt collections and evictions. Such cases now make up as much as three-quarters of all civil proceedings around the country, he said, while three decades ago they were about equal to the number of suits filed over auto accidents and other injury cases.
“American law has grown a lot less plaintiff-friendly in recent decades, but cases by institutional plaintiffs such as debt collectors and landlords have grown rapidly,” said Engstrom, recently chosen by the American Law Institute to lead a study of high-volume civil litigation.