The ABA resolution advises the bench and bar that utilization of special masters has evolved over the last 50 years from the rare exception to a commonplace tool to manage complex litigation, including antitrust cases.
In 2019, the American Bar Association issued a resolution “urging” state and federal courts “to make greater and more systematic use of special masters to assist in civil litigation” “to aid in the just, speedy and inexpensive determination” of cases, as mandated by the federal rules of civil procedure. The ABA resolution advises the bench and bar that utilization of special masters has evolved over the last 50 years from the rare exception to a commonplace tool to manage complex litigation, including antitrust cases.
Still, courts and parties are occasionally reticent to use masters, perhaps due to inexperience with the concept, misconceptions about the benefits or unfounded concerns about the costs. This article intends to discuss the law governing special masters, detail the various ways special masters can benefit the courts and litigants, and provide some best practices concerning their engagement.
What Rules Govern Special Masters Engagements?
In 1957, the U.S. Supreme Court in La Buy v. Howes Leather, an antitrust case, held that the appointment of a special master by a district judge was not justified by docket congestion, issue
complexity and the substantial time commitment demanded by the case; rather, “exceptional circumstances” were necessary. By 2003, however, the law had shifted as Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 53 was amended due to swelling federal dockets to expressly authorize appointment of special masters where pretrial or post-trial matters “cannot be effectively and timely addressed by an available district judge or magistrate judge of the district.” The advisory committee notes recognize: “The appointment of masters to participate in pretrial proceedings has developed extensively over the last two decades as some district courts have felt the need for additional help in managing complex litigation.”
Recognizing this shifting legal landscape, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Glover v. Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, a 2015 consumer protection case involving mortgage foreclosures, affirmed the appointment of a special master, over the objection of the plaintiff, to assist the district judge and the assigned magistrate judge with escalating discovery disputes. Judge Patty Shwartz of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, writing for the court, explained: “While the 1957 La Buy court viewed docket congestion, issue complexity, and the time-consuming nature of a case as not justifying the appointment of a special master, the 2003 version of Rule 53 reflects the changing practices in using special masters. As the advisory committee specifically recognized, the appointment of masters to participate in pretrial proceedings has developed extensively over the last two decades to aid district courts in managing complex litigation.” Continue Reading